Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

The seen and the unseen are fair enough themes, particularly for a filmmaker in the latter stage of his career. And the protagonist of Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, a magician and skeptic named Stanley (Colin Firth) who is a master of illusion and who falls for a medium Sophie (Emma Stone) who is a charlatan (from Kalamazoo no less) is the perfect spokesman for the conflict between reason and faith. Ultimately the desire for happiness that comes from belief is the theme that Stanley, or Wei Ling Soo as he calls himself when he dons his Chinese costume and performs his act, is grappling with. Allen is in good company if we remember that Eliot satirized the clairvoyant Madame Blavatsky in “The Wasteland.” Allen’s comedies present a pantheon of well-meaning souls to parody, but Magic in the Moonlight aspires for something more. “I’m a rational man living in a rational world,” Stanley says. “Any other way is madness.” Stanley is the Henry Higgins to Sophie’s street smart Eliza Doolittle who declares “Just because you are duplicating my miracles doesn’t prove they are not real.” But as in Shaw the scientific method fails to win out. Would that the director could have used his considerable talents to turn the hackneyed nature of the film’s l920’s South of France setting to his advantage! At first you think he’s going to flip things around and then you realize that he’s jumping in lock stock and barrel, including expropriating a Dick Diver type Freudian who tries to get his analytic claws into Stanley in the same way that Stanley attempts to debunk Sophie’s spiritual chicanery. Nietzsche said,  “Please don’t destroy people’s lies, their illusions, because if you destroy their illusions, they won’t be able to live at all... .” It’s a sentiment which gets some air time in the film. But man also needs the willing suspension of disbelief in order to buy characters and a setting. While Magic in the Moonlight is full of wonderful ideas, that one might hope Allen would return to, it’s self-conscious dialogue and disquisition end up creating little more than a leaden period piece.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day or Judgement Day?

A holiday honoring labor is a bittersweet form of recognition considering our current economic realities. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the sleeper of the season, but it provides cold comfort, underlying as it does the growing disparity in wealth that characterizes modern capitalist economies (and apparently hearkening back to the eponymous Das Kapital). As events in Ferguson and elsewhere indicate apartheid is still alive, but economic disparities cut an even broader swath with the rich growing exponentially richer while those on the lower end of the food chain (of all races and colors) struggling to see salary increases that cover inflation. Economic disparities in turn translate into educational ones in which a small class of students coming from affluent backgrounds are educated at a level in which their less fortunate peers can hardly compete.  “Generation Later, Poor are Still Rare at Elite Colleges,” (NYT, 8/25/14) read a recent Times headline. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,  Marx dealt with the nefarious effects of industrialization. Economy of scale created the need for division of labor that alienated the worker from the product he or she was creating. The monotony of the assembly line epitomizes this condition. But the characteristic of the our new society is the dichotomy between those who work and those who profit from other people's work, with the rewards of the latter becomingly increasingly out of sync with those who labor by the sweat of their brow. Yes it’s a free market, but how does one justify hedge fund managers and venture capitalists who make millions, even billions by hitting a button, while doctors, lawyers, accountants constitute a professional class which is increasingly hard put to pay tuitions for their children at the self-same elite colleges they once attended. As alumni their children’s applications may have been favored, but the privilege is a two-edged sword when the tuition bills arrive. In the l950’s educated professionals were still at the top of the heap, but in our current economy many highly educated people spend years paying off their college and graduate school debt only to be faced with the reality of decreased buying power and even further debt. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the problems of blue collar workers who are threatened with the potential insolvency of the safety net provided by the social security system. Retirement is increasingly becoming a luxury that fewer blue or white collar workers can readily afford.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Death Slam

Allen Grossman
At the end of the obituary of Allen Grossman (“Allen Grossman, a Poet’s Poet and Scholar, Dies at 82,” NYT, 6/29/14), Bruce Weber  cites one of the deceased poets critical works, The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers. Grossman is quoted as saying: “Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing. The making of poems is a practice—a work human beings can do—in which civilization has invested some part of its love of itself and the world. The poem is a trace of the will of all persons to be known and to make known and therefore, to be at all.” Pretty cool, huh? Sure what Grossman is saying about poetry could also be said about many human endeavors. Having children who remember you after you’ve died is one. The therapeutic encounter in which the psychiatrist or analyst becomes the repository of memory is another, albeit a more fragile one since the vessel may predecease the source of existential material with which it’s being filled. Nothing is immortal. In billions of years when the earth dies, it’s unlikely Shakespeare’s sonnets will be preserved in some form of celestial ether. However, sure poetry is a bulwark against oblivion, with great poems rising like cream in the vortex of time, to the point where they actually achieve the illusion of immortality. And on a democratic note, don’t even human beings who have never heard of the metaphysical poets or read Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent," have their fifteen minutes of fame? Don’t everyone’s s-mails, e-mails, don’t their inadvertent utterances, their cries of pain or joy, at one time or other, rise to a certain level? Doesn’t everyone, in the course of their miserable lives, write at least one great line of poetry that would have lived after them if it had been recognized?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mike Baker and the Temple of Doom

CNN was interviewing someone named Mike Baker who was identified as “a former CIA covert operations officer.” The interview was about the United States beginning to fly surveillance missions over Syria, as a prelude to bombing ISIS positions. The problem with Mike Baker was that he looked like he’d come out of central casting. He had a chiseled face and the spikey gelled hair of a seasoned actor in the kind of movies where Navy Seals successfully emerge with grateful hostages. If only the footage from Iraq and Syria had been out takes from some film where everything worked out happily ever after. Mike Baker was as unreal as the footage was real. But the question is how someone like Baker was ever a covert operative. His appearance which was about as covert as the name of the company he was identified as running--Diligence. If I were ISIS and I saw him on the street, he’d be a goner. He looked and talked with such poise and confidence that you wondered if he actually had done a stint in Hollywood before joining the CIA or created his role at the Actor’s Studio. Everything was rational including his point that something more would be required than bombing to root ISIS out of Syria. And what would that something be perchance? Troops on the ground? Another private contractor named Blackwater had run into their fair share of problems for murdering civilians in Iraq (“Blackwater Shootings, ‘Murder,’ Iraq says,” NYT, 10/8/07, but maybe Diligence LLC could provide that extra something in a more constrained and humane way. You could just imagine Mike Baker in his camouflage outfit, his face blackened with grease leading his team out of a chopper. You could see them disappearing into the smoldering remnants of some ancient civilization ISIS had just destroyed, like say Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What’s Gross About Europe’s GDP?

photo of vintage Bayer heroin bottle by Mpv_51
The following appeared in a Times article entitled “Sizing up Black Markets and Red-Light Districts for G.D.P,” (NYT, 7/9/14): “The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.” The gist of Liz Alderman’s piece was to show the extent to which European countries are willing to go “to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies,” which might mean not simply reducing debt but finding extra shekels of productivity in places that might not normally have been counted. So the key word becomes “gross,” which according to Merriam-Webster can mean “rude and offensive” or “very disgusting” or when used in the context of the GDP as defined by the OECD, “an aggregate measure of production equal to the sum of the gross values added of all resident institutional units engaged in production (plus any taxes, and minus any subsidies, on products not included in the value of their outputs)," One can’t avoid the significance of the double entendre. What is it saying about Europe’s economic prospects if gross elements like sexual slavery (which must be counted in with prostitution) and drug addiction become necessary to avoid having certain countries falling below the permissible amount of debt for the size of their economies? Sure it’s fun to play with words, but the little anecdote Alderman describes at the beginning of the piece where one Jose Roca, “the spokesman for the National Association of Sex Clubs in Spain…received a call late last year from the government statistical agency.” What will come next, will the leaders of criminal organizations like the Italian mafia be interviewed? Will the fees paid to hit men, no matter how gross, be considered part of the gross national product? Will illegal weapons production be counted? Will terrorism be deemed a quantifiable activity that can help in establishing the solvency of a country?