Sunday, February 24, 2019

A Disappointing Crop of Oscar Nominations

The oddsmakers have Roma winning, and I agree that it should - pure cinema, as Hitchcock would say - but Green Book will win because it has all those comfy, timely liberal sentiments the Academy loves: an American white man and an American black man together learn through helping each other that humanity transcends race on a journey, both literal and figurative, of self-discovery.  Alas, every single scene is completely predictable, and there is not one single interesting shot in the entire film, though one could easily be sucked in by the 101 nostalgic colours.
As compensation, Roma will win Best Foreign Film, and Alfonso CuarĂ³n Best Director and for Cinematography - all unequivocally deserved.
Glenn Close will win Best Actress and Rami Malek will win Best Actor.
Mahershala Ali will win Best Supporting Actor, though it should go to Richard E. Grant for actually being a supporting actor. Shouldn’t Ali have been considered for a Best Actor since he was unequivocally co-driving the film’s narrative?
Regina King will win Best Supporting Actress.
The Favourite will win for Production Design.
Shouldn’t all three actresses in The Favourite have been nominated for Best Actress? Weisz and Stone were not supporters; they were co-drivers.
Ethan Hawke should have been nominated for Best Actor for his brilliant performance in First Reformed. Hopefully Schrader will win for Best Screenplay.
Contrary to what some have said, Lady Gaga cannot act. She has absolutely no screen presence, and in every single scene, we know she’s “ACTING.” [Yes, I’m referencing SNL from a few years back.] It remains astounding that she received a nomination for Best Actress. Ditto for her “co-star” Bradley Cooper as Best Actor. Of course neither really had meaningful dialogue or a half-decent script with which to work. Was everybody high when A Star is Born  got nominated for Best Picture or Cooper for directing? 
And It’s hard to believe that either A Star is Born or Green Book received nominations for their screenplays. Among many classic weaknesses such as telling rather than showing, gaps in character development, and highly predictable plot points, they both give us disappointing conventional sentimental Hollywood endings. I mean, really? Our hero nobly sacrifices himself by way of suicide so that his Star may continue her wondrous career ascension, having more or less been directed to do so by her agent and thereby ironically undermining the self-sufficiency and value of that very act. And do I really have to explain that white on black hug in the final scene of Green Book, or such dialogue as “Let’s get this man a plate?”
BlacKkKlansman undermines itself by its unnecessarily didactic coda. It is a film that does not have enough faith in viewers to draw their own conclusions about race and white supremacy.
In my judgment, with the exception of Roma and The Favourite, none of the nominated films compares to last year’s extraordinary crop in terms of either cinematic practice or storyline. What a falling off!

P.S. Stardate 25.02.2019

1) Sad to say, my prediction about Green Book was dead on. Of course the subtext here is the Academy's fear that a film produced by a streaming service and/or a "foreign" film would win. The Academy has always felt that it owns film, but the game has indeed changed. Films are less and less being "consumed" in movie theatres, and hard media (blu-rays) are on their way out.
2) Olivia Coleman's win for Best Actress in The Favourite could be seen as compensation for a film that had 10 nominations, this being its only win. She was great, but no better than either Weisz and Stone. Close is now 7 times nominated with no win.
3) It pains a bit to see a CGI production design win out over a "real" production design.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Force Awakens: One Big Politically Correct Recycling Machine

The Force Awakens: One Big Politically Correct Recycling Machine

Given all-time box office records for The Force Awakens, it’s pretty obvious almost all comic-con and Star Wars fans in particular do not bemoan in the least the lack of innovation in the latest franchise installment. In fact many seem to have enthusiastically embraced Abrams & Co’s decision to rework, with some new - but not too new - clothes of course, essentially the same trite story material of earlier films. For these fans, familiarly breeds praise. Still there is a considerable contingent of Star Wars fans who are deeply disappointed by this installment, arguing in fact that the film betrays the legacy of the original trilogy, IV, V, and VI, and is profoundly formulaic and unoriginal. The most analytic of these comes from Nicholas Spargo, whose youtube video, Why Stars Wars The Force Awakens is Worse than the Prequels, has gone viral.

But it’s hard to deny that Stars Wars: The Force Awakens, no matter what the film’s audience reception, is one big mother of a recycling machine. And not just in storylines and innocuous themes culled from the first two movies in particular, which in turn culled from countless other recycling literary and film factories, but in obvious character types who have not - as they could have been - repurposed, including a recycled dark side guy called Kylo Ren, with a redesigned black mask but the same flowing black cape and megaphonic voice (the flip side of the dark side father, a dark side son) but with a politically correct cast: one young black male lead (Finn), one young “strong” woman lead ( Rey, the flip side of Luke), two old people (four if you count the bonus characters, Lor San Tekka and Maz Kanata (named after a suburb of Ottawa [lol] and the the flip side of Yoda), one a woman (Princess Leia) and one a man (Han Solo) - both played by purposely recycled actors - one (two if you count the new flip side of Darth Vader, Kylo) young white dude (Poe, channeling Luke in the Top Gun sequences even as Ray and Finn channel Luke in countless scenes), one unintelligible tall hairy purposely recycled endearing guy (Chewbacca) and of course a cute recycled asexual droid standing in functionally for a plucky, courageous child, BB-8 (the flip side of R2-D2).
So what politically correct categories can we safely check off? Racism, gender balance, feminism, ageism, token young and old white males, big hairy guys, and very short rotund asexual droids.
May I suggest, then, that in addition to the strategy to recycle familiar-to-fans story material, which will inevitably turn out to be a mistake I predict, such adroit character choices might have something to do with marketing the film to every conceivable being - including hairy guys and droids or at least people who dress up like that - in the entire film galaxy?* 

*Despite this obvious effort to be politically correct, notice the absence of a gay character - no doubt also a marketing decision for various reasons.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Comic Con Dominates both Theatres and TV

Comic Con Dominates both Theatres and TV

In Canada, the only prominent national venue left for indie films would seem to be Superchannel though it too is beginning to drift in the comic con direction with shows like the over the top Ash.  Regular broadcast, cable, and streaming services have moved more and more towards the comic con films already dominating our movie theatres: Gotham, The Arrow, The Flash, Agents of Shield, Jessica Jones, DC Legends of Tomorrow , Supergirl, Daredevil, Agent Carter, etc. And these films and TV shows seem to appeal to an audience much bigger than the 18-24 year old demographic and teen market. Men in their 70s know who Magneto is.
I suspect they appeal to all those whose values have been shaped by neoliberalism and its naturalization in our culture over the last forty years or so, though there is an unconscious fear in this embrace of comic con culture, I think:   the fear that this wholehearted embrace of comic con pop culture might not be fully justified, the nagging feeling that something isn’t just right in such a full endorsement and that high or at least an alternative culture does in fact still exist recessed though it is, to be sure, but nevertheless still providing a different choice - in short, a troubling lack of confidence in even one’s “taste” in movies.*

This lack of confidence is abundantly evident in the recent fierce and absolute, sometimes outright neurotic defense of such comic-con fare as The Force Awakens on social media platforms or even in the wish to see politically correct feminist value in the now well established trend for "strong" women leads in both film and tv comic-con projects.   An illusion of the ideology of individualism, this is a taste of course totally constructed by corporate marketing strategies with budgets bigger than production costs in most cases. Resistance is futile, or, if you do have the social courage to resist, “you spend a lot of time in the corner,” as Joel Rubinoff laments, “keeping to yourself.”
Hollywood of course relies on the sequel both to avoid financial risk and exploit already established markets more expeditiously.  There is thus little doubt that we will be suffering from comic con and animated sequelitis for many years to come, but these established, known fictional worlds also generate a deep degree of psychological comfort for the comic con audience in more than one way.
Nora Loreto wrote recently in the CCPA Monitor, “Neoliberalism has… created an environment where young people believe that success and failure hinge solely on an individual’s capacities” - the illusion of individual power and choice inevitably resulting, however, not in freedom but in frustration and defeatism, she argues, because of socio-economic realities. 
These movies, as I’ve implied in another post, are pure escapist fantasy - marketed of course as “just entertainment” - dreams of individual choice and power, if you will, delusional fantasies in one sense but therapeutic in another and driven by desire if not need. And perhaps, ironically, given the socio-economic reality for their primary viewers - the prospect of secular stagnation and precarious work forever - useful if not necessary to survive psychologically. In this they repeat the primary psychological role of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, which offered useful escapism galore against the socio-economic reality of the Depression and the horrors of WWII. 
One could argue, however, that in perpetuating the illusion of individual power and choice so massively these films in fact generate a deleterious effect by reinforcing the very values of neoliberalism from which escape is desired. Escapism in this instance cuts both ways: that is, these films are both an escape from neoliberal socio-economic reality and in fact, paradoxically, an endorsement of neoliberal socio-economic values.
Film is never “just entertainment.”
* Cf Andrew O’hehir’s take on fan insecurity referenced elsewhere on this blog.

Is a Referendum the Best Way to Determine an Electoral System?

.Is a Referendum the Best Way to Determine an Electoral System?

Theoretically a referendum may seem like the most obvious and democratic way to determine whether electoral reform is desirable in Canada; but, as we have seen with referendums at the provincial level in BC, PEI, and Ontario, the results almost always render the status quo, not change, largely because of the nature of the choices: the known against the unknowns. That is, first-past-the-post, whether on the referendum ballot or not, is stacked in a binary structure almost always against both a ranked ballot system and proportional representation. There is of course a built in psychological bias for the known in such a situation, and inevitably the unknowns tend to split the alternative vote. Those who want a referendum and favour FPP would seem to be aware of this potential structural deficiency, recognizing that first-past-the-post would inevitably be triumphant either by choice or default.  In this context, then, a referendum is an illusion of democracy.
And so it’s clearly in the interests of those who enjoy a substantial degree of power through first-past-the post to maintain it. In this case, that would be the good old Conservative Party of Canada, who  - let’s be honest - don’t really want a referendum because in fact they really don’t want electoral reform.* Instead, they just don’t want Parliament to consider the issue,** for their real concern is maintaining the power they enjoy through the status quo. Their call for a referendum, in other words, is a mere political ploy, not a genuine gesture in the direction of real democracy; and, sad to say, they’ve sucked in quite a few on the left of the political spectrum.  THE CPC know that were proportional representation, for example, to be established, in many of the ridings where they have won by FPP  - particularly rural ridings - their power would be significantly eroded.***
A referendum offers a second advantage to those who don’t want electoral reform in that it provides a much more straightforward opportunity to lobby if not propagandize against whatever systems are presented as alternatives to FPP by way of various media, editorials,**** op eds, radio talk shows and advertising - a much more difficult task to execute if reform were to be considered through a consultative all-party parliamentary process that would have the sanctioned weight of the representatives Canadians have elected to govern them. It is certainly one of the reasons some want a referendum rather than parliamentary consideration: it allows for substantial direct  “partisanship” spin.
*Cf. Robin Sears: “The Conservatives are already demanding a referendum on any change to the electoral system, secure in the knowledge that that would mean certain defeat for any reform. Some gullible journalists have defended a referendum as an essential democratic test. What that naively fails to recall, of course, is that there has never been a non-partisan “democratic” referendum. The final choice will inevitably be political and require partisan approval.” 
**Why would they? First-past-the-post is not on the agenda, as the Liberal election platform clearly says: “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.”
***Under FPP, less populated rural ridings carry as much representational weight in parliament as do densely populated urban ridings. Because of that discrepancy, they are really less democratically representational. Both a ranking ballot system and PR in particular would in fact be more representational of all voters in a given riding and thus more democratic.
****This has already begun in rural newspapers and even The Globe and Mail.

Monday, May 6, 2013

why focus on inflation when there is little evidence of a inflationary trend while there are abundant statistics revealing just how bad things are for both the unemployed and the underemployed.

One of the official goals of central bank monetary policy is supposed to be low employment fostered through what is known as an expansionary policy by lowering interest rates with the hope that low credit rates will encourage businesses to expand their operations by way of capital investment in hard assets or capital expenditures of some sort and new hirings. We've had this policy in place for quite some time now, and yet employment really hasn't improved one iota. If anything it’s merely gotten worse along with - because of the incentive of low interest rates -  an astounding increase in personal debt to the unseemly tune of a 165% income to debt ratio.
While some businesses are moderately expanding their operations, they do not seem to be increasing employment. Instead, they are either retaining cash and letting it grow - Carney’s so-called hoarding ‘dead money’ - or off shoring/third-partying employment at lower wage standards. Using low interest rates to try to control both inflation* and encourage employment, in other words, simply isn’t working.
But why focus on inflation at all when there is little evidence of any sort of inflationary trend while there are abundant statistics revealing just how bad things are for both the unemployed and the underemployed.** The focus should clearly be on increasing employment, but since low interest rates appear not to be working, printing money to monetize our national debt is just about the only worthwhile option left for a central bank to consider, and just about every central bank in the developed world is doing just that with the exception of Canada. Why not Canada?  Because of a neurotic, ideological fear of inflation that might be generated by a larger money supply - too much money chasing too few goods and thereby raising prices and potentially distorting the price of some financial assets. We are ruled by true believers.
But with that twisted caveat in mind and bearing in mind that this would constitute only a technical solution, not the genuine transformation we really need, printing money for a determinant period of time is still a good choice; for it would allow the government to spend with a bit of comfort in order to build, say, infrastructure and other employment generating programs that both stimulate the economy and employ people as well as potentially lower the Canadian dollar and thereby increase exports.
The problem is that strategy is a political choice, one that would require an intelligent government interested in generating employment rather than imposing wage-suppression and sustaining asset stability.* But the new head of the Bank of Canada apparently plans on maintaining the same old failing monetary policies of his predecessor and his CEO, Flaherty, by privileging inflation over employment as a primary policy direction - albeit a mandated policy but one that nevertheless serves only the neoliberal investor class, not ordinary Canadians. This narrow, misguided perspective is no doubt the reason Stephen Poloz has been chosen as the new Governor.
‘Growth’ and ‘inflation’ are prominent in the news stories about the new Governor with a wish to increase employment nowhere to be found. He’ll get along just fine with Steve and Jim.
* Inflation is an enemy of neoliberalism for two reasons: it erodes the monetary value of already held assets such as bonds and creates pressure to increase wages. Quantitative easing of any sort is a no no under our strict neoliberal regime, though I would not be surprised to see it applied to private sector financial organizations should they need bailing out of some sort.

**  For example, "the number of temporary workers in Canada hit a record two million last year, according to Statistics Canada. That amounts to 13.6 per cent of the work force compared with 11.3 per cent in 1997, when such record-keeping began.
And since the recession, temporary work has grown at more than triple the pace than permanent employment – up 14.2 per cent for temp work between 2009 and 2012, versus 3.8 per cent for permanent workers."

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why are governments addicted to neoliberal #austerity?

The key to deficit reduction is not austerity - reducing government spending by cutting programs and personnel - but good old-fashioned employment. Stanford’s argument is in the Krugman reformist, Keynesian tradition. He doesn't seek a transformation, merely a technical economic readjustment, but, given our failure to transform capitalism so far - which can be brought about, in any case, only with a political strategy, not mere economic tinkering - it has value within the framework of a capitalist reality - a stopgap of sorts. 
As I've said many times in that context:
Without employment, no income; without income, no spending; without spending, no demand; without demand, no production; without production, no economy.
And thus no tax revenue to pay down the deficit. Frighteningly simple, especially when one realizes that government itself instead of firing people could be employing them and establishing employment programs in an effort to stimulate the economy when the private sector is failing to do so during these stagnating times.
Still, the question remains: why is it that so many governments continue to drink the austerity koolaid when it is so evident from countless global examples that it simply doesn't work? Because of course, as the main partner in corporatocracies, they serve their corporate brethren and their plutocratic masters. Austerity always privileges this investor class, and, while it may seem counter-intuitive, recessions, as Robert Pollin has suggested, actually benefit this class*. Ontario is no exception in its allegiance to the financial sector - after all Bay Street isn't in Boise -  especially since it necessarily controls so much of Ontario’s industrial economy too. As long as industrial economic activity is fulled by debt/credit, the financial sector and its capital will be in control.
We should nevertheless be grateful, I suppose, that the Ontario Liberals chose to ignore Don Drummond’s highly dubious classic neoliberal recommendations. Who knows the horrors they might have wrought.

* In the eyes of the investor class, austerity presumably generates confidence by working to maintain government solvency and asset value, especially long-term government bonds, by way of keeping inflation in check through reduced spending. Thus Canada’s neoliberal fiscal policy complements the Bank of Canada’s monetary policy of low interest rates, which also keep inflation in check. This is important to the investor class because government is of course the final guarantor of the plutocrats’ investments and their banking institutions. The outsourcing of government services if they happen at all under austerity is only an incidental benefit as is increased neoliberal freedom in the “marketplace,” for spending, whether intended by the policy or not, is also seriously inhibited in the general economy..

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Maybe its time to begin thinking about withdrawing our patronage from all retailers and services that offshore labour

"Yes, the Conservatives are focused on what they call the economy. But their economy is a ruthless, inhuman task-master. It demands that the very profitable Royal Bank be even more profitable. It demands that 45 highly trained people lose their jobs. It demands that Canada’s visa system allow all of this to happen. The government serves this economy faithfully. Whom does this economy serve?"      - Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star
Maybe its time to begin thinking about withdrawing our patronage from all retailers and services that offshore labour - including perhaps even call centres, which are the most inefficient offshore labour* of all. That might be hard to do, but choices can be made on the scale of evil, even though it’s true, as Phil Soubliere once told me, the lesser of two evils is still evil.

One could also continue to educate one’s family, neigbours, and friends about the exploitative practices that lie behind their shiny new mobile phone or computer, their wonderfully au courant clothing, their expansive new internet service, and their friendly neighbourhood bank. I find, however, that most people, wanting to get on with their necessitated drudge lives, could care less. Yes, of course you’re right, my dear fellow, but what can I do about it? So good luck with that. Maybe your mother will listen.
*English is indeed the language of business and global commerce thanks to U.S. imperial control of global finance, but the cultural differences, the nuances, the subtexts, the connotations, the rhythms among English language speakers are significant when it comes to communication efficiency - which is what a call centre should be all about. An English-speaking German really doesn’t speak the same language as an Indian or Texan. This is why offshoring call centres in the interest of profit and wage cost cutting is a failed business practice. It frequently if not always alienates clients.  The neoliberal habit of displacing domestic workers is also of course in and of itself morally reprehensible.