Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Products for the New Economic Divide

The rich get richer. We've all heard that before. But it appears to be absolutely true. I find all these fantastical facts about the wealth of the wealthy and how it's growing at an atomic rate compared to the rest of us.

Here's some fun facts from the article "Unequal Gains" by Achin Vanaik from India's Telegraph newspaper:
...the combined wealth of the world’s three richest people is greater than the total gross domestic product of the 48 poorest countries. ...in 1960, the average income of the richest 20 per cent of the world’s population was 30 times higher than that of the poorest 20 per cent. By 1995, this had become 82 times greater (United Nations Development Programme Report 1998). ...in 1970, the gap between the per capita GDP of the richest country, the United States of America ($5070) and of the poorest, Bangladesh ($57) was 88:1. In 2000, the gap between the richest, Luxembourg ($45,917) and the poorest, Guinea Bissau ($161) was 267:1. ...a study of 77 countries (with 82 per cent of the world’s population) showed that between the Fifties and the Nineties, inequalities rose in 45 countries and fell in 16 countries.

So SOME people are doing great at accumulating galaxy-sized chunks of money, and I dedicate this post to you! What are you going to do with your incredibly growing pile? You could donate a bit to charity for a tax write-off and give the rest to the kids so they never have to work a day in their lives, but why not enjoy the fruits of everyone else's labor right here and now? I give to you some hot new marketing items for your pleasure on Earth.

First up: own your own solid-gold refuse vehicle. Mr. and Mrs. Jones down the street may be Harvard alums and Mr. Smith next door may own a fleet of Humvees, but you'll be king of the block when this baby comes to your door every week to pick up the trash. For an extra fee, you can lease the platinum trash receptacle. We haven’t developed a recycling truck. You’ve got more important things to do than recycle.

This jewel-encrusted pencil is gorgeous and astronomically expensive. Jot down important thoughts or phone messages when your peer group gives you a call. Emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other precious gemstones sparkle and shine from eraser to pencil tip. NOTE: NOT TO BE SHARPENED.

You’ve spent thousands on your designer eye-wear, now the latest in cosmetic surgery brings you designer eyes. Extra-large sunglasses give you an air of mystery and prestige. Now when you take them off, how much more prestigious will you appear when you eyes are three-to-five times larger than the average? Look forever young with eyes that take up a third of your face--just like adorable and much-worshipped preschoolers do.

We all want a home that feels comfortable and secure. That’s why gated communities offer so much to so few. Take that feeling with you on your next road trip with this gated community on wheels. The entire community runs on diesel fuel and has all the amenities you crave: golf course, indoor pool and work-out spa, 500,000 square feet of living space for several families who feel just right” to you. Two miles per gallon is your right as a consumer and an American who is about to discover yourself and others of your kind “on the road.”

Monday, January 16, 2006

Why music of today sucks

I don’t really know why it sucks but you have to go into deep indie territory to find good stuff because the stuff these kids of today listen to…sucks! Went on a ski trip and got stuck in deep traffic this weekend. No problem we thought, as we whipped out the array of borrowed CDs from the San Francisco Library. Our goal was to try to grasp the new smattering of garage-friendly bands--a noble goal! Let’s do it we pledged. We’re going to follow the trends until we comprehend the trends.

First up were the Shins but they were twee and unmemorable. They have that one really nice song on the Garden State soundtrack (“New Slang”). But 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow just meanders along without ever going anywhere worth noting. Plus, I don’t know, I like men in bands to sound a little manly. The Shins are sooooo wimpy yet they don’t touch my sensitive girl emotions, so I just give up on the Shins. Tens of thousands of music fans could be wrong, you know.

Then it was on to Arcade Fire’s Funeral, which some have called a “stunningly brilliant debut album.” Keith said to me as we trickled along at 10 MPH in our hours-long traffic jam, “They sound like someone but I can’t place it.”

Within moments I knew. Echo and the Bunnymen, then the Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and then David Bowie. The references and influences were unmistakable, yet none of the songs stood out or approached anything as great as the original source material that this band obviously worships. And there were ballads where the vocals were all garbled so I got no sense of what was being conveyed. Isn’t that the point of a ballad? You write, compose and perform ballads to get your feelings across, but if you can’t make out the words, you might as well write a nice instrumental piece that we can listen to in the background as we do our algebra homework. It could have been the speakers in the SUV my dad had kindly loaned us. My dad, bless him, listens to his radio VERY LOUD. That does affect your speakers after a while. Maybe it garbles your Arcade Fire ballads. Isn’t Arcade Fire a stupid name?

And you know what’s even stupider? Straitjacket Fits. I hated that band name! At least they didn't spell it, “Fitz.”

After Arcade Fire I was pretty loopy. I demanded that Keith just play the new White Stripes, but tragically I had left the CD at home in our boombox. We were left with the expensively produced red, black and white photo insert in the jewel case. We pondered all the photos and lyrics. You know what you’re getting with the White Stripes. Even if Get Behind Me Satan is not as cohesive and rocking as 2003’s Elephant, and contains more piano plinking than is perhaps needed (or wanted), Jack White is a blues/rock guitar genius and his weird pinched wail invokes something mysterious and artful. I don’t find his lyrics very compelling but he overcomes that with his delivery. And he overcomes Meg’s constant thwacking too. How does he do it? What if he played with an amazing drummer and bassist? He might be the next Hendrix. Oh I can hope, can’t I? Anyway, he rocks and everyone knows it, so I’ll join the club. But we blew it and for some reason I’ve done that with other White Stripes CDs too. They’re never around when you need them I guess. Like the boyfriend who never quite opened up to all your wonderful potential lovin’--elusive!

What other shitty music did we have? Two Sleater Kinney CDs. Keith likes “You’re No Rock & Roll Fun” on All Hands on the Bad One.” He declared it, "Fonny."

And it is, but man, Sleater Kinney--it’s been 10 years and they still wail away with that dissonant jerky shrill thoughtful sound. They’re great musicians and they actually plot a course and everything but if I want to listen to Television, I’ll just listen to Television. Television did it long ago and then left the scene (or the scene left them). It might have been better for Sleater Kinney to follow suit, then split to pursue other courses in music, like popera (pop + opera) or a cartoon band like the Gorillaz or something else, vaguely gimmicky and different. It’s not their fault--it’s me, but life is shrill enough. And our other selection, The Woods does not sound effortless, let’s just put it that way.

Moving along snottily, we tried radio but that was really a bad scene. We got some modern rock Chico station ("The Point" it is called, many times over) that futzed into oblivion after Franz Ferdinand's "Do You Wanna?" (now that's a terrible song) as we slow-motioned down the Sierra Nevadas, and then something called “Jack FM” where the smooth, computerized (smootherized?) voice said “We play what we want, because we want to.” They wanted to play Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose” and the lamest song on Rumours (“You Make Loving Fun”). I started scanning stations until my index finger cramped up. We heard Kelly Clarkson’s big hit “Because of U.” Wow--it reminds me of the soundtrack I cherish from Valley of the Dolls. The big send-up ending is so bombastic I can’t believe Kelly didn’t require hospitalization afterwards. It goes something like:

Because of U
I lock myself in to brood about the size of my thighs…
Because of U
No one can tell me that I’m good enough for a middle management position
Because of U
I tear my hair out in chunks to line the birdcage at night
Because of U
I snuffed some nutmeg and lost all sense of proportion in my suburban tract home…
Because of Uuuuuuuu
Because of Uuuuuu
Because of Uuu.

Or something like that. I might be embellishing a little. Go Kelly! Keep going over the top with your perfect pitch--nice combination. Keith did not agree with me. He may have gagged a little too.

Then one of many classic rock stations played Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” which always has me focusing on the possible millions of adolescents over the years who have gotten bong-load stoned for the duration of that song. Here’s to you pot heads! It’s the perfect stuck-in-traffic song: Got you in a stranglehold, baby. You best get outta the way!

And then he starts singing about crushing her face. What a total asshole! I’m glad everyone smokes pot before listening to that song, you anti-drug, gun-toting Republican, Nugent!

What other crap did we listen to? It’s all a blur. The Shangri-Las briefly lightened the load with “Leader of the Pack,” also a good traffic song, unless you plan on spinning out like the Leader did at the end. Who doesn’t enjoy a good motorcycle sound effect in their soap-operaish top-40 hit? Shangri-Las--always awesome. Creedence Clearwater’s cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” Had never heard that one before. Pretty good for a radio song. Then Sheryl Crow came on with her Rod Stewart cover of “The First Cut is the Deepest,” which we listened to in its entirety because of a Chuck Klosterman essay we had both liked about that song. About how the Rod Stewart version really made Chuck feel something about failed love and it touched him in a new and special way, and how that’s what artists writing and performing rock & roll is all about. And then he found out that Stewart was covering a song he hadn’t written, and perhaps did NOT feel himself. And that made Chuck confused about what rock & roll is all about. And we felt confused right alongside of Chuck. Especially because Sheryl Crow is one of those performers who has a perfect voice, so perfect that I zone out every time I hear it and have no rememberance of her songs whatsoever. And is that now what rock & roll is all about?

photo credit: Michael Jastremski, openphoto.net

Friday, January 06, 2006

Vera Drake Shit Storm

I was going to write a little review of Mike Leigh’s ’04 film Vera Drake. As a character study of a working class mom, care-taker and house-cleaner in 1950 England, who secretly performed abortions for desperate women, the film got to me on some emotional level that fell somewhere between dread and pitiful sadness. That’s because Leigh loves loves loves to work with character actors and all that love gets up there on the screen and has a taut emotional current running through every performance. Everybody gets a piece of the cinematic pie in a Mike Leigh film and you either fall for that or you don’t.

I guess I’m a Mike Leigh fan, even though he can be annoyingly vague. Mike: please no more hints at back-stories that never play out. Not fair to have your actresses cry their eyes out over “something in the past” that we never get to see. Even in real life we usually get to find out why someone is breaking down in front of us. Generally people politely clue us in to the source of the emotional fallout, even if it’s a bare outline of the past event. Leigh lets a lot of plotlines hang there and you get to figure it out for yourself. That’s very Europeanish of him and I like that in a film, but he might be leaning a little too heavily on that particular little tactic.

Also, he makes multi-narrative, often slow-paced films. I like that too. But many people HATE that in a film and they get really irate that they have to sit there and watch people experiencing a life that is very similar to us sitting around experiencing our lives. They really get pissed off because their cinematic experience isn’t helping them escape from real life and with Mike Leigh, the life they’re watching might be a wee bit gritty and unpleasant to look at. He likes texture and grubbiness and dark, cramped apartments with bad d├ęcor. His actors have really bad hair and wrinkles and bags under their eyes. They’re pasty and their clothes are ill-fitting. Unless they’re upper-class. In Vera Drake The upper class wears smart outfits and they’re pretty hateful or repressed or both.

When I looked at Vera Drake on Netflix to get some more background on the film, I found myself transfixed by the 161 customer reviews. Usually I read a few Netflix reviews of films I’m interested in, just to see what the general public’s take on it was. They’re often informative, or enjoyable, or even interesting with a few disgruntled ones thrown in for balance and sometimes humor. But Vera Drake reviews were interesting on another level. Because the film is about a secretive abortionist who gets caught and goes to trial, people were reviewing more than the film. They were reviewing their feelings about abortion and how it affected their viewing of the film. Now that’s interesting. I hope Netflix and the reviewers don’t mind if I list some of their thoughts here. Most of them are anonymous so it’s not like I’m spotlighting anyone who might live down the street from you. Some reviews contain spoilers so don’t read further if you plan on watching the film first. Netflix has a 5-star rating system. Vera Drake didn’t get a lot of 5-star reviews but most agreed that lead actress Imelda Staunton’s Oscar nomination was deserved.

2 stars - This movie was interesting in that it was pro-legalization but not pro-abortion in the way I expected. It does point out, rather subtly, that the girls who got abortions were not given any kind of physical followup, let alone counseling before or after, and that many of them died. Their deaths did not happen just because abortion was illegal, but because the woman (Vera) performing the abortion was ignorant as to the ill effects of the "help" she was giving. As we hear from the doctors later in the film, many of the people she "helps" in this way probably end up dead shortly after. Pamela is one of the lucky ones. We don't ever see the other girls again. The ones who survive, like the dark-haired daughter of Vera's employer, end up emotionally numbed. I do think the filmmaker wanted us to feel sorry for Vera, who had had an abortion herself and may have been trying (in a sick deflective way) to make it all "come away." Her putting on the tea and her chirpy attitude was a way of saying, "Oh, that nasty abortion you had when you were young, it really wasn't so bad now, was it? Just all part of a normal cheerful day." The reason she cries at the end is that she has to face the collapse of this lie she's told herself. Too bad so many girls had to die before she faced this reality. I never felt sorry for Vera, only sad for the trauma and deaths she caused (to both the mothers and their unborn children). - molotov

Wow! molotov saw a completely different film than I did. I didn’t conclude ANY of the stuff that molotov saw so clearly while watching Vera’s story unfold. I thought she was crying because she was putting her family through the ringer because her two worlds had collided and created a big legal mess. And the dark-haired daughter was emotionally numb even before her abortion, especially after she got date-raped. See? Mike Leigh leaves it up to YOU to figure it out. - editor

1 star - Are we supposed to feel sorry for Vera here? Is that the entire story? Dear Filmmaker -- don't forget that while you're making your political statement you still have to entertain us -- not even close. - Seattle Tattle

4 stars - This story is filled with complexity, yet very simply and beautifully portrayed. There are twists and ironies within this movie that will keep your mind on it for days after viewing. - JK from Missoula

Whoa my head is spinning from these polarized views. - ed

3 stars - Yes, the acting was great but what a hideously depressing film! It made us want to lock outselves in the closet for three months: ears, eyes, mouth and nose filled with mud, in order to suffer a mere nano percent of what Vera did. The impoverished, underprivileged period of subject matter was presented without any redeeming, amazing grace. The sets, clothes, lighting, attitudinal character direction were all of a plangent chord, which seemed to stretch into the Forever. Having to view Vera's non-stop tears for the last half hour was more a question of our intelligence quotient than one of a critic's forbearance. So off went the film. We imagined the ending with Vera crying all the way to the dross house or prison, and crying the entire length of her sentence. - Zooey not Franny

1 star - She makes tea about 87 times, could not have been more boring. Only if I had watch the whole movie. - SL from Bridgeport

Don’t feel you have to actually finish watching the film to review it. That cuts down on spoilers. - ed

1 star - I was considering renting, since it was "recommended". But after reading the reviews & summary, why would I? If its "so real" in its portrayal of abortions, why should anyone want to watch it? And forget how wonderful the acting is...and remember what the subject is people - killing babies. Oh, poor nurse who gets caught murdering babies. I don't think so. If you disagree, try talking to someone who's had to suffer an abortion or any miscarriage of their baby. Why put those feelings on-screen with the pity on the killer? - pro-lifer, USA

Don’t let a thing like not renting the movie stand in the way of your review. - ed

1 star - lauding a woman who committed MURDER? how sad, tragic, horrific. and what a sad commentary on our state of mind as a society to see this as acceptable. those people she was "helping"--those women were carrying human beings. HUMANS. it's so sad how expendable our society views human life. if we don't want it, then we don't keep it--never mind that actions have consequences. there are millions of people who would LOVE nothing more than to adopt--AND there are so many viable options to abortion. - missdaphne19

I know! That’s why there’s hardly any foster kids anymore. - ed (with really sarcastic voice)

1 star - I'm sorry but I think they should have fried her for it. My religion just has trouble with movies of this nature. And people like that I wouldn't recomend this to anyone to watch. - B

According to Netflix, 385 out of 662 people found this review helpful. - ed

3 stars - Like all of Mike Leigh's films, this is a strong character study, one in which afterwards you will remember the incredible acting by Imelda Staunton and not so much the plot points. … I also liked that Leigh didn't make Vera out to be a cardboard saint. While she is definately sympathetic and has that dough-mom quality, there were also times I found Vera very insensitive. Her "cherry-o/buiscuits and tea" routine at times made her unaware of the fear some of these girls had. Here are these petrified girls, and Vera dismisses their concerns with a smile, a quick pat on the hand and off she goes. I liked that Mike Leigh points this out. A very good, solid film!! - Astroboy from TX 8

It’s true, Vera is a very odd duck. Leigh likes odd ducks. I personally think the film is really about an unfathomable person. - ed

3 stars - Here's the thing: If a movie takes me to such a sad, depressing place, i want to know something more coming out than i knew going in. I am old enough to know this material. The sad part, for me, is that the small minded, who should see this film, will most probably not. This movie has great performances by wonderful actors playing inarticulate, uneducated, post WWII, working class people. This is not the swinging, trendy London of the 1960s, okay? I lived through this crap and here it is if you care to know why women absolutly can't go back. Power is NEVER given, gurls. We have to pick power up and keep it. By the way.. Vera Drake was probably having a safty rate comparable to most abortion clinics. Birth control is the big miricle news. Why are we STILL debating abortion when we should be getting accurate birth control info and products to every woman of child bearing age?! - RF from Bellingham, WA

If only Leigh would make a film about swinging, trendy London of the 60s. Then we’ll really see something depressing. - ed