Notes on the Atrocities
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Sunday, February 29, 2004  

Grand Jeffy

In the four years I've been doing the Jeffies, the Grand Jeffy has always been a struggle. Not so this year. Although all four candidates were excellent films, one was a monumental accomplishment. It stood so far above the others in terms of complexity and scope that it was not hard to select. I'm speaking, of course, of School of Rock. Oh wait, I mean Return of the King.

If I have any reluctance (and I do), it's because my desire to advocate for films that should get more attention. For instance, Lost in Translation is the kind of film I enjoy most--an intelligent, understated meditation on human behavior. I cherish small films like this because they're rarely done, and when they're done, few are as good as Lost.

Absent LOTR, I would have chosen American Splendor, which isn't just a rare kind of film, it's unique. Rare is the American movie that celebrates the little guy, the unheralded scrapper, but Splendor goes a step beyond that, literally fusing documentary, biography, and art into one amazing film. American Splendor deserves far more attention that it is getting.

Goodbye Lenin is a dark horse in my Petit Jeffy pool. I included it because it was so wholly un-American. It actually had the temerity to suggest that capitalism isn't all goodness and light; communism not all demonic evil. It approached politics in a way that no American movie ever could--gently, glancingly, directly. If for no other reason than to fly a middle finger at Hollywood's ignorance, I might have selected it (Lenin didn't even get a nod for best foreign picture, despite winning a wheelbarrow of prizes in Europe).

But in the end, Return of the King was a singular achievement. Although many movies were good this year, if you asked directors to reflect honestly on Peter Jackson's achievement, I think they'd tell you he deserves to win. Jackson is unlikely ever to mount such an amazing epic, with such spectacular results, ever again. Sofia, Peter Wier, Clint--none of them could honestly say that about their own pictures. Rarely does a movie project like Lord of the Kings come along. It deserves to win all the awards.

And it deserves--and gets--the Grand Jeffy.

posted by Jeff | 4:23 PM |
 

The Jeffies, 2004

All right, here we go. Based on recent movie-viewing, we have some late-breaking changes. You'll notice that among the nominees for Grand Jeffy is the unreviewed Goodbye Lenin. It is unreviewed because it just got added. I realized only just now that it was actually released in 2003 and was snubbed by the Oscar committe. Not the Jeffies--here at HQ, we've decided to recognize it. As a result of Lenin's inclusion, there are a couple of changes in the acting list, too.

All right, cue the drumroll...

Petit Jeffy (Grand Jeffy nominees)
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, dir.)
Goodbye Lenin (Wolfgang Becker, dir.)
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, dir.)
Return of the King (Peter Jackson, dir.)

And the Jeffy goes to ... a film that will be named later. ;-)

Best Actress
Maria Bello, The Cooler
Hope Davis, American Splendor
Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation
Katrin Sass, Goodbye Lenin
Charlize Theron, Monster

And the Jeffy goes to ... Charlize Theron

Best Actor
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things
Paul Giamatti, American Splendor
Johnny Hallyday, Man on the Train
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
Jean Rochefort, Man on the Train

And the Jeffy goes to ... Bill Murray

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Otto, Return of the King
Archie Panjabi, Bend it Like Beckham
Christina Ricci, Monster
Maria Simon, Goodbye Lenin

And the Jeffy goes to ... Miranda Otto

Best Supporting Actor
Sean Astin, The Return of the King
Zlatko Buric, Dirty Pretty Things
John Robinson, Elephant
Andy Serkis, The Return of the King
Khleo Thomas, Holes

And the Jeffy goes to ... Sean Astin

Best Screenplay
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation
Claude Klotz, Man on the Train
Steven Knight, Dirty Pretty Things
Wolfgang Becker, Hendrik Handloegten, Bernd Lichtenberg, Achim von Borries, Goodbye Lenin

And the Jeffy goes to ... Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Best Director
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation
Peter Jackson, Return of the King
Nathaniel Kahn, My Architect
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor
Gus Van Sant, Elephant

And the Jeffy goes to ... Peter Jackson

Best Foreign Picture
Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears
Man on the Train, Petrice Leconte
Goodbye Lenin, Wolfgang Becker

And the Jeffy goes to ... Goodbye Lenin

Special Jury Award
School of Rock - You hope it's as good as it looks, but it's better.

Big Stinky (Worst film of the year)
Paycheck (John Woo, dir) I should note that Gigli was sufficiently horrifying to scare me off. No doubt it was worse, but I don't want to be presumptuous.

posted by Jeff | 2:01 PM |
 

Movie Week

Here's the last of the Grand Jeffy nominees.

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson
201 minutes (theatrical release)

It's hard to review a film everyone's seen, particularly one that's really just the third part of a longer narrative. Those who love it love it dearly, and those who are put off by the whole phenomenon aren't going to be swayed by the thoughts of an obscure blogger. So rather than review the film you already know so well, I'll mention just two elements of the larger project and why they so impressed me.

The first element--now widely accepted even by people who don't care for the spectacle--is how Jackson successfully filmed this ur-fantasy tale. Fantasy seems easy. It is the most visual written form, the most obviously cinematic. And yet LOTR is arguably the only artistically successful fantasy film ever made. How did Jackson do it?

He started by locating the essence of the story: large things are accomplished by a group effort, and even the most insignificant-appearing creatures are critical to the success of the whole. (It is not, as generally reported, a tale of good versus evil.) Working from the central point, he found the several other major themes and looked at how Tolkien animated them in his own story. Then Jackson bravely altered the narrative so that it would function successfully as film but retain the essence and themes of the original. What results is a perfectly realized version of the written work, but one that's not slavish in its interpretation.

It was particularly brave because the trilogy has become the canonical fantasy text. Deviations were bound to be despised, but filming the thing without the animating spirit of Tolkien's vision would have produced failure. So Jackson left out Tom Bombadil and Galadriel's gifts and he ended the first movie in a different place than the first book. Gutsy stuff and exactly the right thing to do.

The second thing I admire about the trilogy is how Jackson handled he task of size. This thing was an epic born, and nothing could change that fact. But there are pretentious epics and fatuous epics and sterile epics; on the other hand there are V-8 stories filmed with four-cylinder effects. A lot of movies get the "epic" moniker, but few epics get to be called great.

Jackson hit the sweet spot. Part of making special effects work is in having a big enough vision to include all the gadgetry. One of the main reasons I loved the first Star Wars is because Lucas' world is dirty. Sure, it's a sci-fi, but that doesn't mean there's no dust.

Jackson's vision included that level of detail. He used plenty of computer effects, but he also spent the effort to make vast sets, which always look more realistic. When he could, he used visual compositions to inspire awe, not technology. Perhaps the most stunning visual in the series happens in the last movie, when we see a series of warning fires spread from peak to peak. David Lean's most spectacular shots from Lawrence of Arabia were of immense desert painted by golden sunlight. Jackson is wise to this, and doesn't overplay his hand. The special effects are in service of the story--the acting, characters, and tension are what propel the action. The epic grandeur come later, to elevate these. (Hollywood generally has it backwards, with effects first, and story and character second--if at all.)

What Jackson has accomplished almost seems old hat to us already. Yet I am certain it will stand as the epic of a generation. All adventure movies will automatically have to deal with LOTR's presence. I hope people are still watching Lost in Translation and American Splendor in 25 years. I know they'll be watching Return of the King.

posted by Jeff | 10:59 AM |


Saturday, February 28, 2004  

Movie Week

As I build toward the release of the Jeffies, which is of course the height of indulgence, I will now offer a similar list that is similarly indulgent. Like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, I am fascinated by lists. It will not shock you to learn that I've kept an informal list of my favorite all-time films.

What's interesting is how our vision of art changes over the course of our lives. Movies are an elemental art form, hitting us right in the emotions. Sometimes we see movies we're convinced are classics of the form; five years later we see them and wonder what was so hot. My first list was a top-five, and only two are films I still consider great. Then, of course, there's the issue of what qualifies as "great" anyway. No one's going to argue that Citizen Kane isn't an amazing accomplishment, but for reasons of personal preference or emphasis, many folks won't have it in their all-time faves.

So here's my idiosyncratic version. Rather than a top-ten, I have a top six and a second eight. Add to that another four I really like, but which are just a notch below. And finally, recent movies that I thought were stunning, but which I've cellared to see how they age.

Definitely All-Time Faves
Rififi
The Third Man
Stranger Than Paradise
400 Blows
Lawrence of Arabia
Crimes and Misdemeanors


Could be All-Time Faves on the Right Day
High Noon
Sunset Blvd.
The Conversation
The Full Monty
Breathless (1960)
Wings of Desire
The Fisher King
Taxi Driver


Probably Not, But Darn Close
On the Waterfront
Double Indemnity
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Casablanca


Aging for Possible Upgrade
Wonderland
Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
Royal Tenenbaums
Pulp Fiction
Smoke
Big Night
The Commitments


What are yours?

posted by Jeff | 1:12 PM |


Friday, February 27, 2004  

Oscar Odds

Since many of you won't be around a computer in the next couple days, I offer you the latest Oscar odds.* If this inspires you to send me your picks for the digital Golden Neo, so much the better. (Full list of nominations here.)

Best Picture
Return of the King is favored going away. In fact, you can barely make any money on it. After that, Mystic River and Lost in Translation run a tight second. Mystic River is running 7- or 8-to-1 and Lost a little longer, 10- or 12-to-1. Master and Commander's coming in long at 20-to-1, and Seabiscuit the movie is longer than Seabiscuit the horse: 33- to 40-to-1. (Wouldn't it be funny if it won?)

Lead Actor
This is the closest category. Bill Murray and Sean Penn are the favorites, and they're running neck and neck (Penn has the statistical lead). A solid third is Johnny Depp, who gets you 5-to-1. After that, Ben Kingsley and Jude Law are pretty long odds (20- to 40-to-1). The Academy almost never goes comedy, but they mostly hate Sean Penn. A tough choice.

Lead Actress
This is Charlize's to lose, according to oddsmakers. A buck'll get you a buck ten. Diane Keaton and Naomi Watts are going somewhere between 6- and 9-to-1. After that Keisha Castle-Hughes is longer (12-to-1) and Samantha Morton is in Seabiscuit territory. Hey, it's nice to be nominated.

Supporting Actor
This is an interesting race. Tim Robbins is the favorite, but just barely. Next come Benicio Del Toro and Alec Baldwin, also at good odds. Not super far behind are Ken Watanabe and Djimon Hounsou. This might be an upset waiting to happen. Dare I call it for Ken? (I don't.)

Supporting Actress
Renee Zellweger is consensus fave here. Next are Shohreh Aghdashloo and Patricia Clarkson, both running about 7-to-1 (though one source had Aghdashloo as low as 3-to-1). Holly Hunter and Marcia Gay Harden are also just about tied, running in the 15-to-1 range. This category often surprises, so perhaps that explains the oddsmaker who sees Shohreh Aghdashloo as a good bet.

Director
Peter Jackson's getting the same kind of odds as his movie--that is, really, really good. Sofia's getting a little run, coming a respectable 7-to-1 or so. Peter Weir is a bit back, followed by Clint, who's running at about 15-to-1 (which is odd, because Mystic River is playing second fiddle in the Picture race). Finally, the long shot is Fernando Meirelles for the un-nominated City of God. Welcome to Hollywood, Fernando!
_________________________
*Odds captured by surfing the seemier side of the net. Not verifiable; I absolutely do not stand by them. For amusement purposes only. Etc. etc.

posted by Jeff | 1:51 PM |
 

The Rise of Docs

Digital video was supposed to revolutionize film. Cameras were cheap enough for indie filmmakers and images were digital--they could be dumped onto a computer for easy editing. It hasn't really worked out that way, though (at least not yet). I've experienced first hand part of the reason--filmmaking is hard. A few friends and I tried to make a film based on a script I had written. But the difficulties (too numerous to list) of the filmmaking process itself brought us down. When you don't have access to sets and props and can't pay your actors, things get rocky fast.

Where DV has caused a revolution is in documentaries. In the past few years, documentaries have not only been making it to metroplexes, they've been making decent money. And last year, Michael Moore redefined "marketability" when Bowling for Columbine made $21 million. This year Spellbound made $5.7 mil, Capturing the Friedmans made $3.1 million, and Fog of War is off to a strong start with $1.6 million.

DV may not have made fiction filmmaking much more accessible, but it has opened up documentaries. The quality standards for the form are much lower, so it becomes more a question of having a good idea about a story. And here filmmakers are really taking advantage, as the wealth of new documentaries shows.

It's an interesting inverse to the creative laxity of Hollywood. There the technical side of things couldn't be better--films look and sound great and there's literally no limit to what kind of image can now appear on screen. But on the creative side, the story side, things couldn't be worse. Hollywood seems to have lost all taste for risk, and so long as by-the-numbers scripts are available, they'll put their talents to making those tedious things look great. Fifty million dollars and 47 explosions later and it's just so boring.

Documentaries are starting to satisfy filmgoers' thirst for a good story. This year, in Spellbound, we had one of the most exciting stories filmed (though it was shot on regular film). I was literally on the edge of my seat as the kids tried to work through words I'd never even heard before. At the Portland Film Festival, I saw My Architect, which wove personal history, biography, and art apprecation together in a thoroughly original way. I can't imagine movies like Dogtown and Z Boys coming from moribund Hollywood--it's way too far off the by-the-numbers thinking that guides greenlighting.

The most creative stories are still getting made by indie filmmakers. These days, they just happen to be documentaries, not fiction.

posted by Jeff | 12:19 PM |
 

Movie Week

The Passion of the Christ is not a 2003 Jeffy nominee, nor will it be a 2004 candidate. But I watched it last night and it's movie week, so here's a review.

The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
120 minutes

The Passion of the Christ is neither a work of art nor entertainment. It's theology--a liturgy Mel Gibson has offered viewers to participate in with eyes and tears. The usual requirements of the form--character, themes, narrative arc--are missing. In their place are cinematic techniques in service of a religious myth (in the largest sense) the viewer must already know. The movie is an exercise in symbol, and to comprehend it, the viewer must fill in the gaps with personal knowledge. The actors, for example, don't have personalities to create; they're stand-ins for viewer-provided meaning. Because the whole project is religious and not cinematic, the images are ritualistic, exaggerated for theologic emphasis. Christ doesn't just bleed, he rains. The Roman guards who beat Christ aren't just putting in a day at the office, they're sinister madmen, cackling like schoolyard bullies (David Denby called them "Felliniesque"). For anyone unfamiliar with the narrative, the film would be an incomprehensible jumble of ultraviolence.

But Mel wasn't aiming for art, so I'm not going to penalize him for not having made it. Instead, he's offered a soteriological sermon (a word this religious studies major doesn't get to use nearly enough). So what should we make of his interpretation of salvation?

As everyone now knows, the scenes of The Passion are the middle part of a larger narrative--the 12 hours before the crucifixion until just moments after Christ's death. (There are 30 seconds at the end where Christ is shown, stigmata and all, risen in his crypt. It is a perfunctory reminder of how the story ends.) The larger narrative from which The Passion is extracted includes the last supper and extends to the resurrection, where Christian theology generally puts the emphasis (after all, the getting-crucified-by-the-Romans part wasn't particularly noteworthy). In that version, the symbolic meanings of the acts are more important than the acts themselves. With each betrayal and lash Christ receives, we understand that everyone--no matter how heinous or innocuous the transgression--is redeemable. The crucifixion doesn't emphasize Christ's suffering, but the redemption his act affords all sinners.

That's not Mel's reading. By selecting the brutality, Gibson strips the story of symbol. Instead of emphasizing the redemption, it becomes a lesson of endurance. He underscores this point by including Satan in the film. At particularly brutal moments, a slight, hollow-eyed Satan appears in the crowd, trying to break Christ's will. There's more than just a little Mad Max in Gibson's Christ; during the flogging by the Roman guards, Christ heroically stands up after the caning to provoke a more severe scourging that literally leaves him flayed, ribs poking through his shredded skin. Gibson doesn't use realism to depict the brutality, he exaggerates it. The amount of blood Christ sheds is inhuman--gallons of the stuff pours off him. It's ritualistic and intentional, and late in the film, Gibson does tie it back to the blood-and-body speech from the last supper.

Some people have claimed that there isn't enough of Christ's teachings in the film. But for Gibson, the teachings--which are the heart of the redemption of his resurrection--are secondary. It's the suffering itself which is redemptive. Caiphas taunts Christ more than once about his claim that he will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. Sure enough, after his death, the temple is rent in half. Christ, the action hero, has endured the pain and metes out the penalty. But like the rest of the narrative, Gibson misses the point--it's not the destruction of the temple that Christ wished people to understand, it was the rebuilding. The resurrection.

posted by Jeff | 8:28 AM |


Thursday, February 26, 2004  

A review for Passion of the Christ is going to take some thinking--for which I have not the energy at the moment. Tomorrow.

posted by Jeff | 6:46 PM |
 

I'm off to see The Passion. Review to follow.

posted by Jeff | 2:50 PM |
 

Movie Week

Lost in Translation is another movie I've considered for the coveted Grand Jeffy. Will it beat American Splendor? What's the rest of the competition? Ah, these answers and more as Movie Week continues.

Lost in Translation
Directed by Sofia Coppola
105 minutes

After the credits run, the opening shots of the film show a chaotic downtown Tokyo from the window of a car. The images and sounds all come at the viewer in a wall--an unfiltered field of sound and light. Moments later, Bill Murray gets out of his car and is greeted by a vast number of Japanese handlers--he's a movie star there to shoot a Suntory Whiskey ad. Now things seem too close, too invasive, but at the same time too sterile after the swarm of the streets. Welcome to Lost in Translation, a movie that somehow evokes the dislocation of jet lag and culture shock.

The dislocation continues until the final two or three scenes of the movie. Coppola manages it by alternating between long shots that present scenes as incomprehensible jumbles and close ups that make you want to draw further back. If you've traveled half-way around the world, you'll recognize this feeling--it's the sense that if you could just focus your eyes properly, you could comprehend what they behold.

Into this context we are introduced to the two central characters, Bill Murray's Bob Harris, a fading movie star, and Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte, a recent college grad in her early 20s. They are privately suffering their own dislocation. Hers is typical of smart kids who have spent 15 years mastering an environment that no longer exists. His is typical of anyone who's spent 25 years living in the world she's just entered. One is scared of the future, the other that there is only past.

At its heart, the film is a romance, though the characters remain chaste throughout. It is the chastity that makes the film so delicious--where almost every other movie since 1975 would have thrown the two in bed by the end of act one, the social circumstance of their age keep them apart. So throughout the movie, they rest in that moment of possibility, when anything is possible.

Although the attraction is partly about age--Charlotte gives Bob vitality, Bob gives Charlotte confidence--there's a deeper attraction of two kindred spirits. This is where the movie shifts focus; although both characters feel desolation after their first encounters with Japan, this forms a point of connection they share throughout the film. In interactions with an American movie star and lounge singer, and with Charlotte's photographer husband, we see that these are two characters somewhat isolated from their own culture as well.

The film concludes where it began, with Bob in a car, headed back to the airport. This time, though, it's daylight. As the camera watches Tokyo pass by, the images seem composed, comprehensible. Buildings that were overwhelming in the first scene now look merely interesting. Feeling what Bob has just experienced (you'll have to see the movie for that), the buildings look now like old friends. Coppola completes the experience: having strained and suffered to make sense of a country, we suddenly see our own lives on the horizion and look back on this strange, scary landscape with nostalgia.

posted by Jeff | 8:11 AM |


Wednesday, February 25, 2004  

Oscar Trivia*

Most acting nominations: Meryl Streep (13), Jack Nicholson (12)
Most wins: Katherine Hepburn (4)
Most nominations without a win: Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole (7)
Youngest acting nominee: Justin Henry (8)
Youngest acting winner: Tatum O'Neal (10)
Youngest lead actor winner: Adrien Brody (29)
Oldest winner: Jessica Tandy (80)

Winningest picture: Titanic (1997), Ben-Hur (11)
Most nominated picture: Titanic (1997), All About Eve (14)
Most nominated non-winning pictures: The Turning Point, The Color Purple (11)

Most nominated director: William Wyler (12)
Most wins: John Ford (4)
Only women nominees for director: Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola
Directors who have won: Ron Howard, Mel Gibson, Robert Zemeckis, Kevin Costner, John G. Aviildsen,
Directors who have never won: Alfred Hitchcock, Hal Ashby, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles
__________________________
*All stats taken from 75 Years of the Oscar, Robert Osborne (2003), except the director stuff at the end, which I dug around to find.

posted by Jeff | 5:31 PM |
 

Movie Week

Lead Actors

The two performances that have critics buzzing this year couldn't be more different. Bill Murray undertates himself into another zone, while Charlize Theron does her best DeNiro-as-Jake-LaMotta impression. But these weren't the only great performances this year. Many, as you'll see from my list, aren't well-known, either.

So, since I yammered too much on supporting actors, I'll do my best to be economic here. Without further ado, here are my selections for best leads by a woman:

Maria Bello, The Cooler
Hope Davis, American Splendor
Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation
Charlize Theron, Monster

I really wanted to like The Cooler. I like the people in it, I liked the idea of the film, and I liked the way first-time director Wayne Kramer shot the film. Unfortunately, it failed on almost every level. Even Maria Bello's role as a hard-luck casino waitress was deeply flawed. Despite the lack of cohesion from a writing level, Bello sold the role. The heart-of-gold role is usually played either vapidly or with world-weary wisdom. Bello gave it much more--her hard-luck waitress was playing out a losing hand, but she was still naive enough to believe it might change. Her sexiness wasn't played as object, but rather part of her personality. She made me believe that her character could have loved William H. Macy.

Hope Davis had the unenviable role of playing a human who happened to not only be alive, but featured in the very same film. What more can you say than she really became Joyce Brabner? Wonderful.

It's hard to imagine Lost in Translation without Scarlett Johansson. Maria Bello had to make us believe she could love an older man, but Johansson had to show us infatuation. She did it so organically that it almost seemed like not acting. Alas, how often have we seen the other side of that coin?

Charlize. Suffice it to say that the critics are divided. Ebert called it "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema." But the Post's Manohla Dargis was not amused: "Phony choppers and a startling resemblance to Jon Voight aren't enough to transform Theron into Wuornos, and I didn't buy either the performance or the character for a second." I don't know that I'd go as far as Ebert, but almost. After I saw the movie, I wrote that it put me in an altered state of consciousness that persisted for a good 24 hours. The movie itself was flawed, but Theron's performance was so good that I related to her as a person. I felt for her so keenly--not for the actress, but the character. I tend to shy away from the classic "big" performances that often win awards. Not this time. It was amazing.

And the Jeffy goes to: Charlize Theron.

For the men, the winner wasn't as clear. There were five performances I enjoyed, and I could make a serious argument for each as the best performance of the year. The nominations:

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things
Johnny Hallyday, Man on the Train
Paul Giamatti, American Splendor
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
Jean Rochefort, Man on the Train

In a movie almost no one saw (Man on the Train), Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort give two delightful performances. I knew when I started the nominations that it was going to either have to be both or neither, because they were both so good. It's a story of odd couples where the couple are neither really so odd nor, despite appearances, so different. Hallyday plays a noirish thief, Rochefort a provincial school teacher. Their paths cross, and the lives of the other is a balm to each. The movie is itself a balm to anyone with blockbuster-itis.

Chiwetel Ejiofor also gives a very human performance in the similarly un-Hollywood film Dirty Pretty Things. Ejiofor plays an illegal Nigerian immigrant who drives a cab in London, but is in fact a doctor. He becomes the moral center of a movie that swims with immoral sharks. (Review here.) It's a generous character and a generous performance.

I reviewed Giamatti earlier this week, which leaves us with Bill Murray. When a guy like Murray finally gets a nomination, you hope he wins it for a life's work. That's how I feel about him now--except he also deserves to win. For a number of years now, Murray has been playing roles where his humor is a very modest side note. It's a part of his personality, in service to something a little sad or tired. A strange irony that after becoming famous for his comedic roles and his wild SNL lifestyle, latter-day Murray is all in a minor key. When she wrote Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola had Murray in mind for the role, and it brings together all the depth he has had in recent films. It's the ultimate Bill Murray movie.

And the Jeffy goes to: Bill Murray.

posted by Jeff | 12:54 PM |
 

Movie Week

Supporting Actors

Of all the elements of film, acting seems the hardest to pin down. Everyone loves a great scenery-chewing performance like De Niro used to give in the 70s. On the outer edges of this kind of performance is overacting, where histrionics replace human emotion. With performances like these, drawing that line is a tricky business. This year Charlize Theron gave such a performance--some critics loved it but others felt it was over the line (more on that performance later today).

The other kind of performance is the subtle, understated variety, which isn't often rewarded. Bill Murray, who has been giving these performances for more than a decade, was finally rewarded by his first Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation (lesson: if you switch genres, expect the Academy to be slow to notice).

My favorite performances this year included a little bit of everything. I'll discuss them in the usual Academy format, but with Jeffy nominees.

Best Supporting Actor
So in the male category, there were some key perfomances I didn't see: Benicio del Toro in 21 Grams, Albert Finney in Big Fish, and Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass. A couple other performances were singled out by critics for performances I didn't particularly like: Tim Robbins in Mystic River (I felt he was misdirected; like everyone else in the movie, he gave an emotional performance that was at odds with the two-dimensional, remote character Eastwood tried to sketch); Alec Baldwin in The Cooler (good acting, bad character). So, the official Jeffy list:

Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Zlatko Buric in Dirty Pretty Things
John Robinson in Elephant
Andy Serkis The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Khleo Thomas in Holes

Neither Khleo Thomas, who played the wonderful character "Zero" Zaroni in Holes nor Zlatko Buric, as the morally neutral Ivan in Dirty Pretty Things has gotten any attention. They should: they give perfect supporting performances, adding depth and realism to a movie that doesn't seem possible without their vivid roles. Selecting anyone from Elephant is risky, because it's an ensemble piece. To the extent that John (who played the blond kid also named John in the movie) is our window into the movie, he could be called the central figure. Yet as the observer, he does play a supporting role in the narrative. Again, I can't imagine the movie without him.

Finally, the two performances from Lord of the Rings. For a movie who has such an embarrassment of riches, it's hard to argue that it gets slighted critically, and yet it does. The acting is perhaps--perhaps--the trilogy's greatest strength. These characters are far from cookie-cutter placeholders for the action. Jackson also did an interesting thing in the three movies by selecting one character who was a metaphor for the action. In the first film, it was Boromir, who demonstrated the power of the ring. In the second, Aragorn, who placed the narrative in dramatic and historic context. And in the final film, it was Sam Gamgee, loyal servant of the film's nominal hero, Frodo. If the entire trilogy is a meditation on the importance of humble contribution, it's Sam, not Frodo, who is the true hero. I felt that in the books, and I felt it again in the movies. Sean Astin held the movie together with his heroic humility. Andy Serkis chewed the scenery, but Astin carried the dramatic arc.

And the Jeffy goes to: Sean Astin.

Best Supporting Actress
In this category, the performances garnering the most attention were in the kind of film I avoided this year--studio-produced Oscar bait. Shohreh Aghdashloo in House Of Sand And Fog, Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, Holly Hunter in Thirteen Sad to say, but this was a very lean year for great supporting roles for women. I missed a few key performances as well: Patricia Clarkson Pieces of April and Miranda Richardson in Spider. The official Jeffy list:


Miranda Otto in Return of the King
Archie Panjabi in Bend it Like Beckham
Christina Ricci in Monster

I'm well aware of the lameness of this list. I might have tried to pad it a bit, just so I wouldn't look lame. But the truth is, this is really represents the performances I thought were worthy of mention (Maria Bello, who gave a great performance in The Cooler, was sometimes nominated in this category. I don't see how--she was clearly in the lead.)

Archie Panjabi plays the mother of Jess Bharma in Bend it Like Beckham. She had a small role, but really knocked it out of the park (if you're in the mood for a feel-good pick-me-up, this is a good movie). Christina Ricci gave an understated performance in Monster, one that has been derided and praised. I side with those who praise--this is the story of Aileen Wuornos; Ricci's character is there to help explain Wuornos's mindset. Ricci did a great job with the role. Finally, in another small performance, Miranda Otto played Eowyn, the daughter of Theoden. She'll always be remembered for her retort to the Nasgul who taunts her during battle: "You fool. No man can kill me." In reply, she pulled off her helmet, and declared "I am no man" before killing him. But actually, I liked her subtle performance off the battlefield, where she had to juggle showing longing for Aragorn and also pride and strength as a warrior and leader.

And the Jeffy goes to: Miranda Otto.

posted by Jeff | 9:20 AM |
 

I've got an early deadline this morning; by mid morning I should have a post up on the great performances of the year.

(Not to let politics intrude, but I must give a shout out to Dennis Kucinich, who finished a strong second in Hawaii yesterday. Go DK, go!)

posted by Jeff | 7:11 AM |


Tuesday, February 24, 2004  

The Golden Neo

For the past five or six years I and a small group of friends have held a competition to select the most Oscar winners. The prize has varied but is mostly symbolic. The last couple years it was a devil duckie, which was a symbolic step up. Ah, but this year we have upped the ante even more. With an old tennis trophy, a Neo action figure, and a can of gold spray paint, we are in the process of fashioning the ultimate award: the Golden Neo (picture available upon completion).

I don't know if anyone would have interest in matching wits on this competition. I can't offer you the actual Golden Neo, but I'm happy to award a digital version and a heap of praise. If I get enough folks joining in, I'll even consider an actual award (a DVD, say). Here's how it works. You get yourself a ballot (this one, for example) and select the winners. Cut and paste that into an email and send it to me (emmasblog(at)yahoo(dot)com) before the telecast begins. Scoring as follows: 3 points for the "majors," 1 point for the "minors." Majors consist of acting awards, picture, director, writing awards, foreign picture, and feature documentary.

posted by Jeff | 12:49 PM |
 



One of the more intriguing films of the year was Gus Van Sant's Elephant. The French loved it: not only did it win Cannes, but was nominated for a Cesar and won the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics award for foreign film. At home, it garnered a sum total of three critical nominations from the myriad awards-givers: two nominations for cinematography (won one), and a nomination for best director (Gus lost).

On Metacritic, a website that gives aggregate scores on films based on reviews from 30 news sources, Elephant rated a respectable 67. But that score conceals the vast range of opinion reviewers had. Ratings ranged by 90 points, from 10 to 100--the broadest span I've seen. Eleven critics ranked it in their top ten--the same number as critically acclaimed Spellbound. What's especially fascinating is that reviewers loved and hated the same elements.

Ebert: "It simply looks at the day as it unfolds, and that is a brave and radical act; it refuses to supply reasons and assign cures, so that we can close the case and move on."

Christian Science Monitor (David Sterrit): "Van Sant gives no pat or easy answers. Instead he makes us squirm, worry, and think. That's why Elephant is a must-see movie."

Baltimore Sun (Michael Sragow): "The parable sums up the futility of finding the truth in any one man's observations. But the film itself is an exercise in frustration. Van Sant is too determined to show the impossibility of gleaning anything useful from a day in the life of high-school kids before they kill or are slaughtered."

New York Daily News (Jami Bernard): "A movie that takes impartiality to new places artistically. The film is infuriating."

Some great films are universally loved and acclaimed--The Godfather, for example. Elephant is in a second category of art: the controversial. In many ways, making a controversial film is harder than making a great film--finding that ribbon of gray area and exploiting it effectively is a tall order. Subtle changes in emphasis can turn a controversial film bad pretty easily.

I personally found Elephant revelatory. It's a meditation on human behavior, starting at the place that murderers possess the same emotional range as non-murderers. (Plot thumbnail: Elephant explores the lives of high schoolers on a day shattered by Columbine-like shootings; the two kids who commit the murders are in the ensemble, but their roles are not emphasized.) It explicitly avoids issuing a moral position, because Van Sant recognized that the moment a moral judgment is made, exploration and understanding stop.

Watching the film unfold, seeing the naivete in everyone's experience, it's hard to regard the shootings as a simple, dismissible act of evil or madness. In particular, watching what happens to the kids as they progress along the shooting spree, as madness comes to them, it's not even possible to regard them solely as perpetrators.

It's not surprising that some people loved it and others hated it: as a viewer, that's an uncomfortable place to find yourself.

posted by Jeff | 8:22 AM |
 

Movie Week

The Return of the King is considered the front-runner to win a best-picture Oscar (three months ago, Howard Dean was a front-runner, too); if it does, it will be the first part-three movie to win (Godfather 2 was the only winning sequel). I dug around and discovered a few other facts.

Production
3 million feet of film shot during production;
20,602 background actors cast;
15,000 costumes made by the wardrobe department;
2,400 behind-the-scenes crew members at height of production;
114 total speaking roles;
7 total years of development for all three movies.

Oscars
The Lord of the Rings trilogy became the most nominated film series in Academy Award history with 30 nominations, surpassing both the Godfather trilogy (28) and the Star Wars franchise (21).

Box Office
The trilogy was made at a cost of roughly $190 million, or $63 million each. How was the return on the investment? Check out these numbers (which don't include DVD sales):

Domestic
6.* The Fellowship of the Ring - $361 million (as of 2/18/04)
8. The Two Towers - $342 million
13. The Return of the King - $315 million

International
2. The Fellowship of the Ring - $986 million (as of 2/18/04)
4. The Two Towers - $926 million
7. The Return of the King - $871 million
Total international box: $2.79 billion
__________________
*place all-time

Random Trivia
Peter Jackson appeared in cameo as one of the mercenaries on the boats headed for Minas Tirtith.

posted by Jeff | 7:10 AM |


Monday, February 23, 2004  

There was a fairly decent group of good movies this year, but only four I actually considered as candidates for the Grand Jeffy. The first candidate arrived in the fall, when I saw American Splendor, the most original American film I've seen since Memento. Here's a review that originally appeared at Open Source Politics.

American Splendor
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
101 minutes

Harvey Pekar is an choleric everyman who has spent his life shambling the gray and grim streets of Cleveland, hands deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the unbearable heaviness of being a clerk. He is overweight, depressive, unfulfilled--in short, your average working stiff.

Or is he?

Pekar is the author of a comic book series called "American Splendor," which features the character of Harvey Pekar. In the film American Splendor by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Harvey Pekar is both the author and the character and is portrayed in all his hunched, grumbling glory by Paul Giamatti.

In both the comic books and film, Pekar is morose, self-absorbed, unkempt, unpalatable…and very funny. Nobody should be blamed for thinking they've got this guy figured out by now. But intruding on the film's narrative is the narrator himself, the real Pekar, who is mild, affable, and engaging.

Within a few minutes, you have a dawning realization that Giamatti is playing a fictitious doppelganger, the character from a comic book. Or is the real Pekar, whom we see chatting with the filmmakers, actually the doppelganger--with Giamatti, the actor, representing accurately what the real person cannot?

The sense of blurred lines worsens when, half way through the movie, the narrative includes Pekar's famous run on Letterman. As Hope Davis, playing his wife Joyce, watches from the green room, the directors show real footage of the real Harvey Pekar. But lest you think it's the real Harvey, the fake Joyce gets irritated that he's playing the Pekar "character." And round and round it goes, who the "real" Pekar is nobody knows.

But while the directors chose to knit together documentary and biopic, their point isn't an intellectual "nature of truth" thesis. They're much more interested in exploring the extraordinary life of this ordinary guy. What plays out is something like a Woody Allen movie--if Woody made films about working class guys in Cleveland. Giamatti plays the character with a constant scowl, something like Woody's constant nervousness. He works in a monochromatic file room, lives in a dingy apartment, and shuffles along gray streets. Somehow, when set against the scowl, this saturation of grimness starts to seem hysterically funny.

James Urbaniak plays Robert Crumb, the famous alt-comic hero who illustrated the first "American Splendor" comic book. Many of the people who see this film will have seen Terry Zwigoff's Crumb; they'll find Urbaniak's Crumb substantially different from Zwigoff's. Here he's a cool, distant, strangely powerful figure. After the film's turning point, where Pekar's grocery-store epiphany about old Jewish women leads to his first "American Splendor" script, we find him sitting nervously awaiting Crumb's assessment. Crumb reads the panels, illustrated provisionally by stick figures, while Pekar writhes. Finally he issues judgment: "This is really good. Can I illustrate it?"

Hope Davis plays Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner. She's identifiable, but disappears into the role. When the real Joyce appears with the real Harvey, one marvels at how fully Davis has mastered her wide-eyed flatness. Another character named Toby Radloff seems like a fake until we see the real Toby; then we realize Judah Friedlander is channeling him. It's uncanny. (The one character who is miscast is the guy who plays David Letterman--but who cares? We know Dave.)

But the movie is about Harvey, and we never leave his orbit. The narrative moves along following something like a plot, but this is incidental. It's not a film in which we expect anything particularly good to happen; we're really hoping nothing bad does. What we're really interested in, though, is how Harvey will handle whatever does happen. Enjoy this sense of momentary exploration--that's the joy of this movie.

posted by Jeff | 5:26 PM |
 

Movie Week

If the Oscar nominees for best picture are good for anything, it's as metaphors for where Hollywood finds itself in 2004. The movie biz is pretty healthy--indies now regularly play on the big screen, foreign films are making a comback, and in the best trend in years, documentaries are now screening regularly in suburban metroplexes. But for Hollywood, things are bad.

Until recently, Hollywood had developed a groove. Big studios made big, sugary action films--and big money. Smaller fry in the studio world made the Oscar pictures. Indies had little influence, and only occasionally moved into either the Oscar field or money race.

A couple years ago, things started to go awry. Although Hollywood had its fingers in Lord of the Rings, it could hardly be called a "Hollywood" picture in the old Universal Studios sense. The studios were busily turning out really crappy blockbusters (The Hulk, Planet of the Apes), which no one wanted to see.

Erosion happened on the Oscar-movie side of the slate, too. Their versions of art became increasingly bloated, ham-handed affairs that neither made money nor won awards. (Cold Mountain is a great example.)

If you look down the list of the Best Picture nominees, you can see Hollywood's troubles.

Foreign Blockbusters
While Hollywood timidly greenlighted TV show remakes, the blockbuster people went to see was Lord of the Rings, which has now shattered all earnings records and probably grossed more than Bangladesh last year.

And although Master and Commander didn't make the kind of bank Hollywood likes to see, it was the kind of movie Hollywood used to make. The surprising selection of M&C seems to indicate a longing among voters for that Errol Flynn yesteryear when the industry knew how to make a compelling adventure movie.

Indie Cred
I don't know how much to make of Lost in Translation. It was arguably the best film of 2004, but that hardly matters to Oscar. I don't know whether it mainly reflects how bereft Hollywood has become that it couldn scrounge up another Seabiscuit-like replacement, or if the industry has finally turned a radical corner toward quality films. In any case, the very presence of Lost in Translation is remarkable. That a funny little not-quite-comedy about culture shock and dislocation would get the nod says something about Hollywood. It may be a year or two before we know what it means.

Chestnuts
The last little ground Hollywood seems to have carved out for itself is a style of film that seems like a throwback to the "winning" pictures of the 40s and 50s. I'm going to toss both Mystic River and Seabiscuit into this category, even though they're fairly different films. The subject of Seabiscuit is a bygone era, and the movie feels like a piece of it. It's a Horatio Alger story for the new millennium. A nation savaged by doubt and fear is inspired by the story not because we see ourselves like plucky Seabiscuit, but because we like to remind ourselves that once we were Seabiscuit.

Mystic River, for all its darkness, is also a familiar movie. It has the scenery-eating performances that recall On the Waterfront. The lesson here is the Alger shadow--a vision into the seemy darkness we must overcome.

I just watched three movies at the Portland International Film Fest this weekend. I saw a movie filmed in the Central African forest, a magnificent German movie called Goodbye Lenin, and a series of shorts. Seeing the creativity and vitality of films being produced across the globe, I have really been stunned by how dead American studio films seem by comparison. They are stylized no less than Bollywood's, nor are they any more adventuresome. Indies like Lost in Translation now boast all the production values of a big-budget picture, and contain vitality you almost never see coming from Hollywood.

2004 may be remembered as the year the tide turned and Hollywood started making good pictures again. Or, if Lost in Translation wins best picture, it might be remembered as the beginning of the end for the industry.

posted by Jeff | 8:32 AM |
 

MOVIE WEEK

This week I'm taking a break from politics. In a reprise to last year's partly successful week about literature, I'll only be writing about movies for the next seven days (unless the world intrudes in some unavoidable way). I know many of you are wonks and political junkies, so I hope you enjoy the break as much as I will.

Like many Americans, I love the movies. Every week, my partner Sally and I leave work a little early on Friday afternoon and catch the late matinee--usually on the film's premiere. I fall into a low category of film buff--the only genre I don't like is horror. So whether it's School of Rock or American Splendor, I can get equally excited. And every year, even though I end up feeling gross and disappointed, I anticipate the Oscars with unhealthy excitment.

For the last few years I've prepared a list of my fave movies called the Jeffies (last year I called them the Goldies on this blog). Part of this week will be spent discussing some of my choices for finest films, performances, writing, directing, and so on. I'll post reviews of the films in contention for the Grand Jeffy--that coveted best pic award all Hollywood's buzzing about. I'll also write about some of the themes and trends in film, the state of the art, and some fun stuff like trivia.

I invite folks to participate in the discussion. Film appreciation is idiosyncratic, so more voices will help dilute my own tastes. If anyone is dying to offer an alternative view or a review of a fave film from the past year, I'll even be happy to post guest blogs. We've got the rest of the year to talk politics, so I hope this is an enjoyable diversion for one week.

posted by Jeff | 8:02 AM |


Sunday, February 22, 2004  

You already knew this, but now it's official:

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday he will run again for the presidency, declaring that Washington has become “corporate occupied territory” and arguing there is too little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties.

My take, which is far from unique, is that this won't make a whit of difference. Without even the auspices of the Green Party, poor Ralph will be running alone and against most of his most ardent supporter's wishes. The worst thing about this news is that Nader's legacy, which is rich and wonderful, may be forever marked by his quixotic political campaigns.

Not this year, Ralph.

posted by Jeff | 8:10 AM |


Saturday, February 21, 2004  

This is a little random, but as I wean myself from hard politics in anticipation of MOVIE WEEK on Monday (mark your calendars), let me draw your attention to the latest incursion on the written word: the SAT test. Yes, that venerable, derided, friend-to-the-white-and-wealthy test now includes a written component. Seems like a good idea on the face of it, right? Had I been offered a written component back in 1985, it might have mitigated my abysmal 480 math score.

Except that it wouldn't.

The test, as described in the Atlantic's current issue, is essentially a mathmatic equation with words standing in for the numbers. The resulting essay, unsurprisingly, will generally contain poor writing.

We and our colleagues at The Princeton Review have spent many years training students to take the SAT II, and have carefully analyzed the College Board's essay-grading criteria. To receive a high score a student should write a long essay of three or more paragraphs, with each paragraph containing topic and concluding sentences and at least one sentence that includes the words "for example." Whenever possible the student should use polysyllabic words where shorter, clearer words would suffice. The SAT essay will not be a place to take rhetorical chances. Flair will win no points; the highest-scoring essays will be earnest, long-winded, and predictable.

On a personal note, I knew of the SAT's failings even before seeing this article, because a twin version appears on the grad school version, the GRE, which my significant other (Sally) took late last year. She didn't do as well as she would have hoped. This isn't surprising, because she's a fantastic writer. Her prose is original, clear, and accessible--just what the College Board now instructs its graders to punish.

The article in the Atlantic is called "Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore?" I find it ironic, because that's the school Sally went to, after a nearly flawless performance on a 1980s version of the SAT.

posted by Jeff | 11:26 AM |
 

The Post today has trenchent observations on the recess appointment of William Pryor.

THE NOMINATION of Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was, from the beginning, a provocation on the part of the Bush administration. Yesterday Mr. Bush made that provocation all the more provocative by installing Mr. Pryor -- who has been held up by a Democratic filibuster -- by recess appointment. Mr. Pryor is the second judge the president has placed on the bench using this procedure, which allows the president to bypass Senate confirmation for appointments made on a temporary basis. The result is that Mr. Pryor will be a judge for now, but he will leave office unless both Mr. Bush and a filibuster-proof Republican Senate majority win election this year. In other words, his prospects of longer-term service on the bench will be bound up with the electoral fate of the Republican Party -- exactly the sort of political dependency from which judges are supposed to be insulated.

posted by Jeff | 8:35 AM |


Friday, February 20, 2004  

Another Friday, another news dump. Mister Trustworthy, our President, does all his dirty work late Friday to ensure two cooling-off days before he gets hammered. Today's atrocity? Read all about it:

(AP) -- Bypassing angry Senate Democrats, President Bush installed Alabama Attorney General William Pryor as a U.S. appeals court judge on Friday in his second "recess appointment" of a controversial nominee in five weeks.

Pryor's federal appointment has been vigorously opposed by Democratic senators who have objected to his past comments and writings on abortion and homosexuality.

I can draw your attention to two locations should you wish to research the delightful Judge Pryor. People for the American Way have worked up a nice rap sheet, and at the Dossiers, you can get the full scope of the "activist judges" the President so hypocritically derides. Naturally, TalkLeft is also on the case. "Here's a nice summary by PFAW of some of his worst offenses:

Pryor is a leading architect of the recent states rights or federalism movement to limit the authority of Congress to enact laws protecting individual and other rights. He personally has been involved in key Supreme Court cases that, by narrow 5-4 majorities, have restricted the ability of Congress to protect Americans rights against discrimination and injury based on disability, race, and age. Worse, he has urged the Court to go even further than it has in the direction of restricting congressional authority. Just last month, for example, the Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist, rejected Pryors argument that the states should be immune from lawsuits for damages brought by state employees for violation of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

"Pryor believes that it is constitutional to imprison gay men and lesbians for having sex in the privacy of their own homes, and has filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold Texas Homosexual Conduct law, which criminalizes such conduct. Pryor believes that singling out gay men and lesbians in this manner does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the same brief, Pryor equated for purposes of legal analysis sex between two adults of the same gender with 'activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia.'"

You think Bush is trying to send a message to Massachusetts and San Francisco (and the entire Democratic electorate)? Things are getting ugly...

posted by Jeff | 3:27 PM |
 

Via Atrios we get this news from the New York Times.

Is cooking a hamburger patty and inserting the meat, lettuce and ketchup inside a bun a manufacturing job, like assembling automobiles?

That question is posed in the new Economic Report of the President, a thick annual compendium of observations and statistics on the health of the United States economy.

The latest edition, sent to Congress last week, questions whether fast-food restaurants should continue to be counted as part of the service sector or should be reclassified as manufacturers.

Sound familiar? Listen:

The Labor Department today announced a change in the way jobs will be classified. The Department called it an effort to reflect changes in the workforce over the past twenty years. The last time jobs were reclassified was in 1978, before computing altered the workforce.

The largest change will affect the manufacturing sector. Under the new rules, restaurant employees are being recategorized as industrial workers. "Most restaurant workers today are emplyed in the fast food industry," explained Roland Grimes, economic undersecretary. "These employees work on an assembly line and manufacture a product, pretty much just like Henry Ford's old factory workers, so we felt this made a lot of sense."

Employment figures released today show that industrial and manufacturing jobs were up 347% over last month. President Bush praised the figures and hailed the increase as further evidence that his tax cuts were spurring job growth.

I wrote that two weeks ago as part of my regular Friday satire series. Is that freakin' CREEPY or what?

posted by Jeff | 10:41 AM |
 

John Kerry is not a Rat Bastard

As we inch ever closer to having a nominee, the notion is dawning on some lefties that Dennis Kucinich may not actually win this thing. Thus the delightful window where anything was possible has turned into the inevitability of the finite qualities of Kerry and Edwards. (In case anyone wants a prediction about the winner, I'll confidently take John.) And so comments such as these appear:

"Kerry strikes me as just another side of the same old, tired coin. He's a war criminal, he's in tight with corporations, he's pro-war..."

"Edwards is supposedly trying to get Kucinich and Sharpton barred from the next debate. If that turns out to be true, the asshole just lost my vote even if he does get the nomination."

After a pretty nice honeymoon with the voters, one of the Johns is about to enter the phase of shock and awe--a fair amount of which will be friendly fire. Great.

John Kerry is no revolutionary. He's been around for 20 years, which means he's had to vote for or against a whole raft of legislation. And you know what? Politics doesn't work cleanly. Legislation gets bundled--you throw a little pork on top of a good bill in order to buy off enough senators to get the thing passed. That's how politics works. Blaming Kerry for being a politician is naive and short-sighted. He hasn't been the kind of politician who will only vote for the few pork-free bills that came down the pike. His calculus is the same as most politicians: to get you must give.

Truth: John Kerry has one of the most liberal voting records in the senate. Truth: he has a nearly perfect record on the environment. Truth: the red herring of gay marriage aside, Kerry has a very strong record on civil rights.

Since the beginning I was only lukewarm about Kerry. He's a droner, he's boring, and he's firmly enmeshed with big money (though how he could become a US Senator from Massachusetts without courting corporate interests is beyond me). But he's a good guy, an honorable man, oh, and incidentally a liberal. If Kerry does become the nominee, he will be the most liberal Democrat we've had in 12 years.

I'm tired of folks on the left going scorched-earth on anyone with the temerity not to be their candidate. John Kerry isn't Dennis Kucinich. But calling him a war criminal or saying he's indistinguishable from Bush is just ignorant. He's a decent guy and I'll be proud to vote for him.

posted by Jeff | 8:04 AM |
 

Scott McClellan's grilling this week inspired today's post. Happy Friday satire--

Gaggle

Question: Scott, the last couple days you've been backing off the President's jobs forecast. Before that it was the poor budget numbers. Of course, there's the WMD question, which the President still calls an "intelligence failure."

Scott McClellan: Roger, before I--

Q: I haven't asked my question, yet, Scott.

Scott McClellan: Go ahead.

Q: The question is this: is the President really as incompetent as he seems, or is he a liar?

Scott McClellan: What?

Q: All right, another example. Last year Larry Lindsay estimated the war would end up costing $200 billion and the White House made a big public show about how wildly inaccurate that was. They even went so far as to fire him.* Then the President asked for expenditures totaling $150 billion for the year, with estimates of at least $50 billion this year. So what was it? Did the President really have no clue about what the war might cost, or was he just misleading the public?

Scott McClellan: Thanks for the question, Roger. You bring up an important point that hasn't been made recently. The President of the United States made the world a safer place last year by removing a violent dictator and a dangerous terrorist. Your question highlights exactly how important it is to keep our eye on the ball and not get caught up in details.

The President said he would address the threat of terror and he has. The President said he would bring democracy to Iraq and he has. His focus has always been the safety of the American people, and it will remain there.

Q: Did you hear what I just asked?

Scott McClellan: I heard you.

Q: Would you mind answering the question, then? We get the press releases, but I'd like to know how the White House plans to spin all these disjunctures with reality. So what is it, incompetence or lies?

Scott McClellan: Oh, come on, Roger, I'm not going to answer that.

Q: Because it's rude? Would it help if I reframed the question?

Scott McClellan: What are you asking, Roger?

Q: Let's stick with the cost of the war. Why did the White House deny the war would cost $200 billion?

Scott McClellan: You know as well as I do that budgetary estimates are notoriously hard to make. The President wasn't willing to commit to a figure.

Q: Well, while we're on budgets, why did the President omit Iraq expenditures in this year's budget? Why was the number used to justify the Medicare legislation lowballed by a third? The list is as long as my arm, Scott, you pick the example,--

Scott McClellan: I'll be happy to go through them with you--

Q: --but my point is the President's credibility. Why should anyone believe anything he says?

Scott McClellan: Nobody bats a thousand, Roger. He's as accurate as anyone.

Q: So you're going with incompetence?

Scott McClellan: This line of questioning is out of order. How dare you question the President. He's got more character than you'll ever have, you little punk. He tells you what you need to know. The American people know that and trust it.

Q: You mean liar, then? But in a good way. I just want to get it right.

Scott McClellan: That's enough. Yeah, Angela?

Q: Scott, we're still wondering when the President is going to account for the months in 1973 when the National Guard has no records of his presence...

________________
*That, at least, is true.

posted by Jeff | 6:52 AM |


Thursday, February 19, 2004  

"I think it is what it is."

Scott McClellan, from today's beating (a gaggle not yet online, but available here.)

Well, there's no arguing with that.

posted by Jeff | 4:39 PM |
 

On Saturday, I saw a documentary called My Architect at the Portland International Film Fest (which is quietly becoming one of the better film fests in the country). It is a personal account of the architect Louis Kahn, made by his son Nathaniel. It's a great film, and I give it my highest recommendation, should the opportunity to see it in your city present itself. But this isn't a film review.

Rather, it's an inspiration that results from having seen the film: give the Iraqi Governing Council $200 million to build a parliamentary building.


The arc of the documentary concludes in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where Kahn created the plans for the massive capitol complex. It is a fantastically over-the-top building that took the same length of time to construct as the Taj Mahal--23 years. For the poorest country in the world, one composed mostly of rice paddies and swamps, such a building seems like an unconsciounable waste. Yet it is exactly the opposite. For Bangladeshis shown in the film, it is a symbol for what they want their country to be--for its aspirations, not its reality.

As Iraq progresses toward democracy, it will need independent, home-grown symbols of its own. Despite George Bush's pre-war calculations, democracy won't be imposed on Iraq. It will either come from Iraqis or it will fail. Having a new, post-Saddam symbol of what they are striving for would be a wonderful aid in developing that democracy. I know, it ain't gonna happen. I can dream...

posted by Jeff | 2:25 PM |
 

Although two or three of the candidates might quibble, possibly the biggest loser in the primaries so far is organized labor. Wes Clark won more states this year than labor's two darlings, Dean and Gephardt. John Edwards, friend of the workin' man, is quitely winning the hearts of workers who feel disquieted by the wealth and corporate connections of the John Kerry. And Kerry, meanwhile, has been picking up the lion's share of labor's subsequent re-endorsements--which probably dooms him to a surprising upset.

Used to be that labor endorsements meant something--at least in Democratic primaries. What's up?

Post continues at The American Street...

posted by Jeff | 12:01 PM |
 

Our governement has been taken over by crooks. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new millennium's Boss Tweed:

[House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay has made plans to use a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable foundation created by him and operated by his daughter and several of his associates to fund political events at the Republican National Convention over Labor Day weekend. DeLay weakened House ethics rules last year, ending bans on free trips to and lodging at charity events where lawmakers mingle with lobbyists and businesspeople. His latest maneuver could free both political parties to use captive charitable organizations as vehicles for off-the-books influence peddling.

The brochure for DeLay's charity, Celebrations for Children Inc., openly solicits funds to be used to pay for a luxury hospitality suite for big donors, a yacht cruise, VIP tickets to Broadway shows, a golf tournament and a late-night party. For $500,000, a donor gets a private dinner before and after the convention with DeLay and colleagues as well as high-level staffers. These are functions for which political soft money was used during the 2000 conventions.

posted by Jeff | 7:28 AM |


Wednesday, February 18, 2004  

Everyone's piling on the President for backing off his jobs promise. I won't let that stop me from joining the fray.

Recall last year about this time that Bush was rolling out the third of his kickbacks, err, tax cuts. For the first time, economists started to get skittish, so he rebranded them "Jobs and Economic Growth." Here, see for yourself, it's right on the official webpage.

The President will not be satisfied until every American looking for work has found a job. (Bold theirs.)

President Bush, ladies and gentlemen: dissatisfied.

Meanwhile, Scott McClellan was getting his daily beating by the press. Tired of goring him on the President's military record, they went after jobs today. Some of the exchange:

Q Can you answer the specific question, though? Was this report -- was the prediction of this many jobs, 2.6 million jobs, vetted prior to publication by the entire economic team?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's an annual report, David. It goes through the usual -- it goes through the usual --

Q That's not the question. Was it or was it not vetted by the entire economic team?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's an annual report. It goes through the usual --

Q So you don't know, or it was, or it wasn't?

[Here there's a lot of badgering before McClellan finally answers the question.]

MR. McCLELLAN: -- it goes through the normal -- it goes through the normal vetting process.

Q So the answer is, yes. I'm not done yet, I've got another one.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay.

Q Why -- if you're suggesting that people will debate the numbers, that's kind of a backhanded way to say, oh, who cares about the numbers. Well, apparently, the President's top economic advisors do, because that's why they wrote a very large report and sent it to Congress. So why was the prediction made in the first place, if the President and you and his Treasury Secretary were going to just back away from it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I disagree with the premise of the way you stated that. This is the annual Economic Report of the President and the economic modeling is done this way every year. It's been done this way for 20-some years.

Q So why not -- why aren't you standing behind it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think what the President stands behind is the policies that he is implementing, the policies that he is advocating. That's what's important.

Q That's not in dispute. The number is the question.

MR. McCLELLAN: I know, but the President's concern is on the number of jobs being created --

Q My question is, why was the prediction made --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and the President's focus is on making sure that people who are hurting because they cannot find work have a job. That's where the President's focus is.

Q Then why predict a number? Why was the number predicted? Why was the number predicted? You can't get away with not -- just answer the question. Why was that number predicted?

MR. McCLELLAN: I've been asked this, and I've asked -- I've been asked, and I've answered.

Q No, you have not answered. And everybody watching knows you haven't answered.

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree.

You can almost hear McClellan mutter under his breath "hey, these lame responses worked when Ari fed them to you; why are you comin' after me?"

posted by Jeff | 4:21 PM |
 

Bush today took another swipe at gay marriage, hoping desperately to wedge himself up.

"I have watched carefully what's happening in San Francisco, where licenses were being issued, even though the law states otherwise," Bush said. "I have consistently stated that I'll support law to protect marriage between a man and a woman. Obviously these events are influencing my decision."

Never mind that he was probably exaggerating this claim. (More likely, he was unaware of San Francisco until one of his advisors mentioned they were marryin' off gays there. But I digress.) What burns my bacon is the following statement : "I am troubled by activist judges who are defining marriage."

Well man, if you're troubled by activist judges, why do you keep nominating them?

posted by Jeff | 1:48 PM |
 

Dean, who is apparently announcing the end to his campaign even as I type, posted this note on his blog this morning:

In the coming weeks, we will be launching a new initiative to continue the campaign you helped begin. Please continue to come to www.deanforamerica.com for updates and news as our new initiative develops. There is much work still to be done, and today is not an end--it is just the beginning.

This Party and this country needs change, and you have already begun that process. I want you to think about how far we have come. The truth is: change is tough. There is enormous institutional pressure in our country against change. There is enormous institutional pressure in Washington against change, in the Democratic Party against change. Yet, you have already started to change the Party and together we have transformed this race. Along the way, we’ve engaged hundreds of thousands of new Americans in the political process, as witnessed by this year’s record participation in the primaries and caucuses.

The fight that we began can and must continue. Although my candidacy for president may end today, the most important goal remains defeating George W. Bush in November, and I hope that you will join me in doing everything we can to support the Democrats this fall. From the earliest days of our campaign, I have said that the power to change Washington rests not in my hands, but in yours. Always remember, you have the power to take our country back.


Yesterday I expressed the wish to hear him say roughly these same words. I know many folks thought he was a loose cannon or a sell-out; many felt he might even try to destroy the party on his way out. Perhaps his campaign was crushed as much by people's strong opinions of Dean (he was neither a mythic hero or villain) as by the whole "electability" issue. Who knows. But I'm pleased to see Dean leaving on the honorable note I expected.

More importantly, it appears Dean plans to continue working at the grassroots. He may well contribute more to the party than he would have as President. I've taken a lot of heat on this blog for backing Dean down the stretch after it was clear Dennis Kucinich wasn't going to emerge. My switch is fair game for derision and I'm happy to take the heat for it. But on the occasion of his departure, I'd like to thank Howard Dean for his vision and courage in the race. I hope everyone would extend the same thanks.

posted by Jeff | 10:34 AM |
 

Youth

This morning, I listened to students at the University of Wisconsin describe what happened at the moment of truth. Despite their support of Dr. Dean's platform, at the last second they switched to Kerry based on the "electability" canard. I know, everyone's doing it. But these were Dean's army. Many of them probably wouldn't have voted in the first place if it hadn't been for his candidacy. Et tu, Badgers?

And they went with Kerry--not hopeful, populist Edwards (at least according to this story from NPR). That's odd, too. Edwards, in fact, picked up the pro-war conservative crowd. (Raising the specter that Edwards might run stronger in the industrial north, where broad-shouldered union men have lost jobs; war-hero Kerry, meanwhile, could run stronger in the patriotic south. Naaahh...) You'd think that if a student were going to switch from Dean at the last moment, the choice would be the new insurgent, right? Given the opportunity to boldly go where they've never gone before (the voting booth), surely they'd give the establishment the finger? No.

This is why youth is courted lightly. Lacking political experience, voting is like other exercises of trying on identities. The flightiness of the electorate isn't due to young voters alone--exit polls said 58% of voters made their decision in the last week. But particularly now, when the electorate is so flighty, the youth vote is the last segment to count on. An odd outcome for a group who just a year ago was considered such fertile ground by both Dems and the GOP.

Things will probably change in the general election. The choice will be far clearer between any of the Dems and Bush than it is now, with three likeable and similar candidates. I doubt that fact will give Howard Dean much comfort.

posted by Jeff | 6:42 AM |


Tuesday, February 17, 2004  

It's your money (and it's going into the Man's pocket)

My attempts to come up with cool pie charts as imagined below have fallen a bit short (so far!). However, my search did turn up something valuable. According to the IRS, as a percentage of all taxes collected, individual income taxes did decline between 1998 and 2002, from 50% to 47.8%.

Ah, but wait. If you earn a paycheck, you're probably still paying more. Employment tax--that wee fee Unca Sam snips from your paycheck--has grown considerably, from 34.2% to 39.5%. Meanwhile, corporate income taxes have fallen, from 11.6% to 8.3%.

Let's check the scorecard:

Workers are paying 3.1% more of the total burden, even after income tax reductions, in the past four years.

Corporations, meanwhile, are paying 3.3% less.

This is particularly egregious when you consider that the funds workers support with their paychecks (Social Security, Medicare) are being raided by the President to (not quite) pay for his tax cuts to the corporations and the wealthy.

Still, I lack the data to mock up my cool pie charts...

posted by Jeff | 3:14 PM |
 

Apropos of that Dean post, I should mention that Joe Trippi now has his own blog. It's called Change for America, and reading through the few posts he has up, I'm wondering if maybe he's not the guy who will organize the people. Good stuff. Go have a look.

posted by Jeff | 12:31 PM |
 

I'd like to draw your attention to a couple of posts on my local blog.

Yesterday I interviewed a Democratic candidate for the state legislature. He hails from a small town in rural Southern Oregon, and isn't likely to get much attention, even in the local press. Whether or not my blog qualifies as actual journalism is debatable. But this isn't: with corporate media dominating broadcast channels (particularly local radio), there aren't as many venues for this kind of discussion.

It pleases me enormously to think blogs may help fill an important role in the democratic process.

posted by Jeff | 10:23 AM |
 

Although I have no credibility on the issue anymore, I nevertheless have a few thoughts about Howard Dean. In the event that he doesn't win Wisconsin today, he will be presented with a valuable opportunity. It won't seem like it to a man who felt he was a whisker away from the White House. But if he steps back and looks at the situation, he might realize his role as an outsider is far more valuable than as an insider (one could reasonably call that the central lesson of his campaign).

When Dean first decided to run, he had no earthly reason to believe he would become a viable candidate (though no doubt that was his aim). The freedom of running from way outside allowed him the objectivity to judge the country's situation, the electorate's wishes, and his own strategy. Like Dylan said, "when you got nothin,' you got nothin' to lose." So he reached out and found a vast group of educated, wired Americans who were feeling revolutionary. Thus a serious candidacy was born.

The nerve to throw his lot in with revolutionaries catalyzed the party--but also freaked it out. Revolutionaries are groovy and all, but it's the stable old-timers who tend to see you through when things get tough. Dean's major failing was that he kept talking revolution too long; staid Iowans and flinty New Hampshirians, presented with the task of defeating Bush, looked at the revolutionary approach and blinked. The debacles that followed--Dean throwing in with Neel and old, decidedly non-revolutionary Dems--were too late and too desperate to win back the moderates.

So Dean is essentially back where he started, but with some surprising gains. Kerry may win, but the party looks far different--it is safe now to talk revolution, to take the fight to Bush, and to quit genuflecting to Reaganism. (Man, am I glad about that last one--if I had to endure another election where the Democrat expounded the virtues of self-reliance and corporate cronyism, I think I'd move to Canada.) Even with a Kerry victory, it is Dean who commands the revolutionary army.

If he wants to continue to remake the Democratic Party, he must face reality and step away from the race. His opportunity is in showing that politics isn't just about political races--it's about ideas and coalitions. Stepping aside now and cheerfully supporting the nominee would put Dean in the position to continue to demand Democrats act like Democrats. He can show that there's more to offer a party than candidacy and act as an example to all his supporters who will now wonder what they should do. Setting the party's agenda, crafting policy solutions--that's where the real power is. That's where real change begins. It's also absolutely critical in rebuilding the party from the ground up; Kerry may win the election, but Deaniacs could actually seize the party from the DLC.

Dean was an outsider when he started, and he showed how powerful that can be. If he loses in Wisconsin, he'll be an outsider again. The decision about how to use that position is up to him.

posted by Jeff | 8:08 AM |


Monday, February 16, 2004  

"The tax relief was a vital part of this economic recovery."

President Bush, today.

Much like "relief" here has a specific definition, I think we shoud recall what a Bush "recovery" looks like.

posted by Jeff | 5:17 PM |
 

Imagine these graphics. Two pie charts, side by side. In the first, all federal tax income, divided to include corporate and individual taxes, the latter divided by quintile. That one dated 1999. The second pie chart contains the same slices, but is dated 2003.

Below, it might be instructive to have two more pie charts. In these, we see federal expenditures, divided to include discretionary spending, Medicare, Social Security, and defense. Again, dated 1999 and 2003.

My suspicion, of course, is that you'd see the lower income slices in the "tax" pie get bigger as a portion of collected income, and you'd see the expenditures for discretionary spending--the federal funds used in supportive services that mainly benefit those lower income slices--get slimmer. Might be a powerful argument against the GOP's cynical "we just want you to keep your money."

Where does one find those kind of data?

posted by Jeff | 2:41 PM |
 

David Neiwart, at both his site and the American Street, wonders just how dirty Republicans will get in the upcoming year:

Of even greater concern, though, is the kind of emerging conservative rhetoric that paints liberals not only as "desperate" but evil vermin who deserve to be exterminated.

(Answer: as dirty as their creativity permits. It's going to be a back-alley knife fight.)

The reason is because the GOP strategy-setters have been co-opted by the neocon fringe (which is to say the fringe of the neoconservative wing). The Republican Party still a pretty varied stew--red meaters like Tom DeLay, sure, but there are also healthier ingredients like Olympia Snowe. In local politics, the GOP is even more varied. City republicans are as likely to be gay, nonwhite, or secular as their Democratic foes. But those folks aren't charting election strategies.

Francine Prose, in an article in the March Harper's (if you subscribe to only one magazine, Harper's should be the one), compared the philosophical underpinnings of the neocon wing to reality shows.

Observant readers may already have noted that the guiding principles to which I've alluded--flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled common enemy to solidify group loyalty--are the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing and continue to hear from the Republican Congress and our current administration.

If Democrats wish to defend themselves against this approach, they have several options, most of them bad. They can respond in kind--but unlike the group loyalty GOP overloards can expect, Dems will get a bronx cheer from their own camp, and drive waffling Republicans back to George. They can ignore the attacks, which is the classic Daschle Maneuver. But smiling and praising the guy who's carving you up in a knife fight has shown to have its flaws as well.

The Democrats have about a month to come up with a coherent response that works. Elements from the campaign--calling the GOP on these tactics rather than responding with slimier smears; demanding that the press ask hard questions about the behavior of politicians; demanding that the GOP stand behind its actual record rather than its PR--have worked. But they mostly worked among the Democratic faithful and during a relatively attack-free phase.

Another tactic is to target the moderates with a reasonableness campaign. Trying to separate the Snowes from the Bushes might be easier than Dems imagine--after all, with very soft support and a growing list of black marks, Bush may not even be around next year. Senators have a longer view. Congressional Dems can give support to this tactic by pushing for moderate legislation--in the Bush years, moderation is a wedge issue for Republicans.

In any case, soon the knives will start glinting under streetlights. How will the Dems respond?

posted by Jeff | 11:24 AM |
 

Poor Dean. Here's what one of his senior staffers said yesterday: "If Howard Dean does not win the Wisconsin primary, I will reach out to John Kerry unless he reaches out to me first." Ouch. (That's some discipline in the Dean camp, no?)

posted by Jeff | 8:13 AM |
 

A reminder, next Monday begins Movie Week here at Notes. Mark it on your calendars--

posted by Jeff | 8:09 AM |


Sunday, February 15, 2004  

Nation Building, Part 3
Promoting Democracy



1. Introduction
2. Self-Determination

US foreign policy depends on two generally conflicting interests--the desire to exercise control in strategic regions and the implied goal of promoting democracy throughout the world. To Americans, the conflict isn't as obvious. Public campaigns in the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Afghanistan, and Iraq--all of these fostered in the breasts of Americans a soaring pride of the national commitment to democracy. But the US politicians don't use their partnerships with countires like Saudia Arabia, China, or Kuwait in those same PR campaigns. It is these latter relationships that the rest of the world knows is actual US foreign policy: control of regions through partnerships with stable tyrannies.

And, as Iraqis themselves learned after Gulf War I, the US rarely has the stomach for long-term, systemic solutions that would ensure democratic governments not only emerge, but survive. They know that once politicians in America have gotten their bump in the polls, they abandon the hard work and turn to the next adventure for additional cheap PR.

A recent New Yorker article touched on some of these points. In it, George Packer argues that these failings come from both sides of the ideological spectrum because both hold incomplete visions of what democracy means.

The dominant theme of American politics since the nineteen-sixties has been freedom: cultural freedoms under Democrats, economic freedoms under Republicans. The pursuit of happiness became a private affair, and the sense of civic responsibility withered among liberals and conservatives alike. The political choice was between two versions of hedonism.

In the conservative case, ideological creep has led to a kind of democratic totalitarianism in which the urge to democratize comes at the point of a sword. The US no longer participates in international democratic institutions and foreign policy has become the "coalition of the billing"--the US dragging along whomever it can buy off. Thus the conservative vision offers conquered nations little hope of self determination. Weakened vassal state are dependent on their "liberators," and countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have little choice but to accept democracy on American terms.

But if the conservative vision offers too little self-determination, the liberal vision offers too little structure or support.

Certain mental traits that have spread among Democrats since the Vietnam War get in the way--not just the tendency toward isolationism and pacifism but a cultural relativism (going by the name of "multiculturalism") that makes it difficult for them to mount a wholehearted defense of one political system against another, especially when the other has taken root among poorer and darker-skinned peoples.

Liberals, for very different reasons, have not been willing to put in the effort to rebuild democracies, either. Stung by past quagmires, they are unwilling to stick around and do the hard work, hoping that liberation will become the source of democracy. Their impetus is further limited by the relatively smaller bump they receive in the polls at home.

The dimension Packer doesn't mention in his article (which has a different focus) is this: sincere regional commitments to democracy ask that US foreign policy be reshuflled entirely. Holding the line on "evil" Iran while protecting "good" Saudi Arabia and Israel completely undermines US credibility in the Mideast. This exposes the real strategic disadvantage of promoting democracies: it's risky. The best symbol for this conflict is Iraq itself. While the US wishes to appear supportive of democracy there, it can't really afford it--at least not in the short term.

If you want to lose that unwanted beer belly, eventually you have to come to the reality of physics. Either you cut back on the beer, or you exercise more. There are a lot of other options, but solutions are finite.

So it is with democracy. If the US has a sincere desire to promote it, the reality has to be confronted. Without the foundation of physical safety, economic stability, education, functional services, and so on, the country will be lost to chaos. Without a national commitment to democratic principles--free press, minority rights, civil liberties--the country's nascent democracy will be lost to tyranny. And without confronting the power of ideological opposition within a culture--generally fundamentalism in the Mideast--the country's democracy will co-emerge with its opposite embedded into government and have to fight a downward spiral of internal conflict.

The US must also put greater systemic changes in its own foreign policy into place. It must begin leading in international cooperation (whether through the UN or independently), and it must abandon policies that coddle dictatorships in neighboring countries.

Without the long-term commitment to building these structures and changing its own policy, "promoting" democracy will remain confused and contradictory and function mainly as domestic PR.

posted by Jeff | 11:17 AM |
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