Sunday, December 30, 2007

Favorite Books of 2007

Books are alive and well in 2007 - Here are some notable ones...
Reading is a distinct pleasure that for most people starts early in life and only grows with each new book. My faves of this year - though some were written earlier, are:
The Great Upheaval: American and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800, by Jay Winik.
It CAN Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush, bu Joe Conason (Big Lies).
The Loomimg Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright (God's Favorite).
Film Imagination and the Anarchist, by Richard Porton
Not Quite a Memoir, by Judy Stone
Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin R. Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld)
Prime Green: Remembering The Sixties, by Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers).

Full-time book critics approach recreational reading with a head start. We’re already reading for pleasure. We are immersed in books we find appealing, since the nearly 300 books chosen for the daily reviews in The New York Times have been culled from tens of thousands of volumes published each year. Some are chosen for their self-evident importance. Some are terrific sleepers. Even if a book’s foremost quality is its awfulness, a review in these pages means there’s something about it that one of us found noteworthy.
But we have favorites. And they meet criteria that any reader will recognize. These are the books that are disappointing only because they have to end. They’re the ones we mention to friends. They’re the ones worth taking on vacation, and they are well executed, whatever their genre or subject matter. They are what we’d read even if Michiko Kakutani, William Grimes and I weren’t designated readers.
The 10-favorite lists that follow are not 10-best lists. They’re not based strictly on merit. They don’t cite books we admired in the abstract but didn’t particularly like. Nor are they based on comprehensiveness; with so many books afoot, none of us can hope to have a complete overview. Each of us has stayed within the confines of our own reviews published in 2007 and picked the 10 books we covered most avidly — though there is one exception. Because Times critics do not review the work of their Times colleagues, Michiko Kakutani did not review Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes.” She recommends it nonetheless.
Think of these as lists that leave off the broccoli, figuratively speaking — though we have nothing against broccoli at all. (Michael Pollan’s new pro-vegetable manifesto, “In Defense of Food,” might be on my list were it not for a technicality: Its publication date is Jan. 1, 2008.)
Our tastes and interests are sufficiently different for there to be only one point on which we readily agree: As it becomes possible to rush books into print ever more hastily, editing ain’t what it used to be. “Finding Faith Without Fanatacism” is a misspelled subtitle that actually found its way onto the front cover of a hardbound 2007 book (“You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right,” by Brad Hirschfield, published by Harmony Books; it has since been corrected). Though there are many candidates for the honor of Year’s Sloppiest Book, the wall-to-wall bloopers in “Pearl Harbor,” a novel by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forschten, warrant special “wretching noises” from us all. The books that follow, in alphabetical order by author, were, in the “Pearl Harbor” vernacular, “all ladened with” better things. —JANET MASLIN

Michiko Kakutani
HOUSE OF MEETINGS by Martin Amis. This harrowing, deeply affecting novel recounts the story of two brothers interned at one of Stalin’s slave labor camps, taking the reader on a frightening journey deep into the heart of darkness that was the Soviet gulag.
THE SECOND CIVIL WAR: HOW EXTREME PARTISANSHIP HAS PARALYZED WASHINGTON AND POLARIZED AMERICA by Ronald Brownstein. A veteran political reporter provides a shrewd election-year assessment of the growing partisanship in American politics, looking at the roots of this polarization and its alarming consequences for the country at large.
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION by Michael Chabon. A clever, engaging and fully imagined epic cum detective story based on this historical what if: What if a temporary safe haven for Jews had been created in Alaska in the wake of the Holocaust?
NIXON AND KISSINGER: PARTNERS IN POWER by Robert Dallek. A fascinating portrait of President Richard M. Nixon and his chief foreign policy honcho, Henry A. Kissinger, a book that not only deftly deconstructs their emotionally fraught relationship and their policy making on Vietnam, the Middle East and China, but also underscores the historical lessons of their decisions and missteps.
THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Díaz. A dazzling debut novel that unfolds from a comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek into an unnerving meditation on Dominican history and the relationship between political and personal dreams and losses.
THE UNKNOWN TERRORIST by Richard Flanagan. This Tasmanian novelist has written a dark, unsparing thriller about a case of mistaken identity, using his Hitchcockian heroine’s plight as a launching pad for an examination of a post-9/11 world in which fear is a valued commodity for terrorists and governments alike.
WHEN A CROCODILE EATS THE SUN: A MEMOIR OF AFRICA by Peter Godwin. A haunting and deeply evocative memoir about a writer’s discoveries about his father’s hidden past and his family’s life in Zimbabwe, a country that has seen its bright post-revolution dreams of a multiracial society give way to violent hatred and strife.
SCHULZ AND PEANUTS by David Michaelis. A revealing and sympathetic new biography of the creator of “Peanuts,” which highlights the autobiographical sources of the cartoonist’s art: how Charles M. Schulz gave his own wishy-washiness and determination to Charlie Brown, his sarcasm and anger to Lucy, his dignity and “weird little thoughts” to Linus and his frustrations and daydreams to Snoopy.
THE NINE: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF THE SUPREME COURT by Jeffrey Toobin. A vivid narrative of the Supreme Court’s recent history and an intimate portrait of the individual justices that shows how personality, judicial philosophy and personal alliances can inform decisions that affect the entire country.
LEGACY OF ASHES: THE HISTORY OF THE CIA by Tim Weiner. A timely, compelling and prodigiously researched history of the C.I.A. by a reporter for The New York Times that chronicles an alarming litany of intelligence blunders and bungled operations, from the agency’s creation after World War II through the cold war to its recent failures in the prelude to the Iraq war.
Janet Maslin
CHRISTINE FALLS by Benjamin Black. A broodingly atmospheric period piece and a credit to its author, John Banville, who needn’t have used a pseudonym.
AWAY by Amy Bloom. Alive with incident and unforgettable characters, this brief but epic novel illuminates as brilliantly as it entertains.
THE LETTERS OF NOëL COWARD edited by Barry Day. Fizzy yet eloquent correspondence, toughening over time, from a man who once accurately wrote to his mother, "You’ve got a fascinating youth for a son, my dear."
HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill. The year’s best horror debut, with fantasy used to witty, shockingly good effect — by a writer who could easily be compared to Stephen King, even if Mr. King were not his father.
EINSTEIN: HIS LIFE AND UNIVERSE by Walter Isaacson. The great man’s geopolitics, faith, cultural impact, philosophy, amorous affairs and superstar status are all part of this admirably lively portrait.
UNCERTAINTY: EINSTEIN, HEISENBERG, BOHR AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF SCIENCE by David Lindley. A scientists’ showdown, articulately explained and well described by its subtitle. This has been a good year for Einstein, that’s for sure.
WHAT THE DEAD KNOW by Laura Lippman. In time-honored mystery tradition this writer challenges her readers with clues hidden in plain sight. The return of a long-missing person, possibly an impostor, stays tricky through 400 serpentine, carefully nuanced pages.
FIND ME by Carol O’Connell. A road trip tracking the hard-boiled adventures of Kathy Mallory, the tough, obstinate heroine of an outstandingly clever crime series.
JOURNALS: 1952-2000 by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Both showstopping and door-stopping: a half-century’s worth of political insight and party-hopping from a great and tireless gadfly.
I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD: THE DIRTY LIFE AND TIMES OF WARREN ZEVON by Crystal Zevon. The Los Angeles ’70s rock scene, quite literally in a nutshell: an oral history of its most caustic and unforgettable character.
William Grimes
THE DAY OF BATTLE: THE WAR IN SICILY AND ITALY, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson. The second volume of “The Liberation Trilogy” follows American and British forces from North Africa to Rome in a triumphant work of narrative history.
THE INVISIBLE WALL by Harry Bernstein. The author, now in his 90s, recalls his impoverished boyhood in a British mill town, on a street where Jews lived on one side and Christians on the other.
LONG TIME LEAVING: DISPATCHES FROM UP SOUTH by Roy Blount Jr. A collection of witty, insightful and offbeat essays on Southern culture, from shortening bread to Memphis Minnie.
FINAL EXAM: A SURGEON’S REFLECTIONS ON MORTALITY by Pauline W. Chen. A young surgeon’s thoughtful inquiry into the care of terminally ill patients, and the fears that both doctors and patients must face.
HOUSE OF HAPPY ENDINGS: A MEMOIR by Leslie Garis. A lyrical, melancholy evocation of the author’s childhood and her father’s descent into madness.
AGENT ZIGZAG: A TRUE STORY OF NAZI ESPIONAGE, LOVE, AND BETRAYAL by Ben Macintyre. A true-life thriller, the rollicking wartime adventures of Eddie Chapman, the least likely British secret agent.
YOUNG STALIN by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Digging deep into previously unavailable archival material, the author paints a detailed, convincing portrait of the future dictator as a wild, poetic revolutionary and crime boss of the Caucasus.
TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: THE REBELS WHO BROUGHT CHURCHILL TO POWER AND HELPED SAVE ENGLAND by Lynne Olson. Sharp portraits of the political outsiders who recognized the Nazi threat early on and organized support for the anti-appeasement policy championed by Winston Churchill.
THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE: A HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Graham Robb. The fractures behind the facade are sensitively traced, revealing France, for most of its history, as a mosaic of regions, languages and cultures united by only mutual incomprehension.
THE BOYS FROM DOLORES: FIDEL CASTRO’S CLASSMATES FROM REVOLUTION TO EXILE by Patrick Symmes. Through Fidel Castro’s classmates at the elite Colegio de Dolores, a Jesuit academy in Havana, the author tells, enthrallingly, the story of modern Cuba.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

This Modern World Year in Review

Good ole 2007, and Tom Tomorrow etches his pen to great impact. He is one of the most acid commentators on the scene, as each panel exposes the poseurs, the sycophants, the arrogant chattering class and the hanger-ons desperate to cling to any sliver of power they can. -MS

Monday, December 24, 2007

Mutiny in Baghdad by US Soldiers

The neverendingwar has created horrific conditions for everyone, and in this story from an embedded reporter, follows the course of events that led one group to say, no more.

read more | digg story

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Pick Your Candidate

The first presidential preference ballots will soon be cast, in Iowa.
Oh my.

Meanwhile, the rest of us may benefit, if that's the right description, by taking the following survey. You may discover your views are represented by a certain candidate that you were not even aware of. Your views may be very close to a candidate that you thought were actually quite different. Find out. 25 issues are listed. You may find your candidate is not quite the one you thought - or, you may be in perfect alignment.
Instructions: Go through each issue listed and choose the stance you would prefer in a president. If a particular issue is important to you, select a different weight to the right. If an issue is not important to you, leave it as unknown/other. This site will attempt to match your views against the views of the US presidential candidates.

The People have spoken.

Will the Candidates listen? Or, does it matter?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Wilson's War tells a Texas-size Whopper

"We just can't deal with this 9/11 thing. Does it have to be so political?" from an anonymous source at Playtone Productions
Charlie Wilson's War purports to be the true story of a hard-partying U.S. congressman from Texas who engineered the defeat of the Soviet Union by the Afghan Mujahiddin. Now there are true stories, and there are true-ish stories. It is a given that, in creating a film narrative, sometimes the truth gets a little bent, but it's against the rules to change facts that change the outcome of history. When telling the story of Antony and Cleopatra, they gotta die at the end, n'est pas. It's inappropriate, for example, to tell the story of World War II and pretend that, because the United States might have given a box of guns to the French Underground, there was no Holocaust. That's a pretty good analogy for what's been done in Charlie Wilson's War.
In the latter half of the movie, there is one big lie and one item of anti-Afghan propaganda. The lie is that U.S. support to the mujahiddin went only to the faction led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan leader who was assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001. I spoke with Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, in 2002, at which time he called Massoud "a Russian collaborator." I find it disingenuous that Wilson and his Hollywood biographers now want to throw their arms around him. (Note: George Crile's book does not make this false claim.) Moreover, if this movie succeeds in convincing Americans that the U.S. support went to Ahmad Shah Massoud alone, it will have effectively let the CIA and Wilson off the hook for their contribution to the circumstances leading up to 9/11. During the 1980s, Wilson engineered the appropriation of approximately $3.5 billion to help the Afghans fight the Soviets. According to Milt Bearden, CIA chief of station to Pakistan, Massoud received less than 1 percent of it.
So, if Massoud was not receiving the $3.5 billion that Congress was sending, who was? There were seven factions based in Pakistan who were the recipients of American largesse, but about 40 percent of it went to a blood-thirsty, fundamentalist, loudly anti-American bastard named Gulbaddin Hekmatyar.
However, instead of using the resources the United States sent him to fight the Soviets, he frequently used them to fight his mujahiddin allies. It was Gulbaddin Hekmatyar who turned Kabul to rubble -- not the Soviets and not the Taliban. Gulbaddin Hekmatyar regularly rocketed his own capitol during his term of office as prime minister. Hekmatyar is renowned for having killed more Afghans than Soviets. He so habitually attacked his mujahiddin allies that many people suspected he was actually a Soviet agent.
Not only is Hekmatyar anti-American, but he and another anti-American fundamentalist, Abdul Rasul Sayaf, received lots of support during the 1980s from the Saudis. That support included cash and thousands of Arab volunteers, including a wealthy young engineer named Osama bin Laden. It was Hekmatyar and Sayaf who, with bin Laden, established terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why after 9/11, Wilson went on Fox News and said, "This was as much my fault as anybody's." He understood the link between U.S. support for these thugs and the events of that terrible day. But Wilson's mea culpa is not included in Charlie Wilson's War, nor is there any mention of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rasul Sayaf or Arab volunteers. Interestingly, Hekmatyar and the Arab volunteers did make an appearance in an earlier draft of the script, making it clear that their absence from the final cut was no oversight on the part of the filmmakers.
Getting back to Ahmad Shah Massoud ...
As it so happens, Massoud did not receive any financial support from the Saudis, because they mistakenly thought he was a Shia Muslim. He was Sunni. Nevertheless, he was not altogether displeased with the situation, because it meant he didn't have to deal with the Arab jihadis. This is one of several reasons why, had we actually supported Massoud and not Hekmatyar, there would have been no 9/11. To be sure, there were quite a few people during the 1980s, including several U.S. Senators and various journalists, trying to warn Wilson and the CIA that the consequences of supporting Hekmatyar would be globally catastrophic. In response the CIA would always throw up its hands, exclaiming, 'We have no control over the distribution. It's all handled by Pakistan, and the Pakistanis liked Massoud even less than the Saudis.
But if, as is pointed out in Charlie Wilson's War, "He who has the gold makes the rules," then the United States had the power to control distribution. The CIA simply refused to exercise that power, and Wilson faithfully accepted their word. Other members of Congress, such as Sens. Gordon Humphrey, Daniel P. Moynihan and Gary Hart, tried and tried to convince the CIA to take control of distribution.
So, why was so much support funneled to this scumbag, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar? This question leads to the anti-Afghan propaganda part of the movie.
In the same scene in the movie as the misinformation about Massoud is a propagandistic joke deeply offensive to Afghans. This joke (coupled with the Massoud "inaccuracy") is the reason that the Afghan Embassy is boycotting Charlie Wilson's War.
The joke is: "When a Tajik man wants to make love to a woman, his first choice is a Pashtun man."
Why is this propagandistic? Because it supports the idea that Afghans are just too tribal to get along. They've always fought each other. As Wilson once said to me, "You put two Afghans in a room, you end up with seven factions." The trouble with this idea is that Afghanistan has been a cohesive nation for several hundred years.
So who wants the world to believe that Afghans can't get along? Pakistan. The reason for this is the Durrand Line. The Durrand Line is the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it is not very stable. There are Pashtun tribal regions on both sides of the border, and at some point since the establishment of Pakistan (about 60 years ago), it was suggested that the Pashtuns on both sides of the border should unite to create Pashtunistan. This idea makes the government of Pakistan very nervous. In response, they threw their support to Gulbaddin Hekmatyar in the 1980s, because he agreed not to dispute the border, but also because he was deeply feared and disliked by Afghans, and would thus continue to be reliant on Pakistan as his source of power. Pakistan then convinced the CIA, to the cumulative tune of about $1.5 billion, that Gulbaddin was the guy best suited to whoop-ass against the Soviet Union. Later, during the mid 1990s, when he failed to control Afghanistan on their behalf, Pakistan nurtured the Taliban into power.
So why were these two offenses included in this movie?
1. The Massoud "inaccuracy" was included because Tom Hanks "just can't deal with this 9/11 thing"; and because Wilson and Joanne Herring (played by Julia Roberts in the movie) threatened legal action after reading an earlier, more honest, draft of the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Herring was Pakistan's honorary consul to the United States in the 1980s, and as such, enlisted Wilson into supporting the cause of the Afghans. Neither Wilson nor Herring wants history to remember them for their contribution to the events that culminated in 9/11.
2. The really bad joke was included because, when Wilson retired from the House of Representatives, he was so copasetic to Pakistani views that he went to work for Pakistan as their lobbyist -- at the rate of $360,000 per year. Not bad for an old skirt-chasin' boozer.

Melissa Roddy, like several of the principals in the saga of Afghanistan, is a native Texan. An actress based in Los Angeles, she is currently producing and directing a documentary film on the history of Afghanistan from 1979 to 9/11 entitled The Square Root of Terror

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Was 2007 the year indie cinema started to leave theaters behind? Wherever the biz is going -- can you say "video on demand"? -- big changes lie ahead.

Beyond the Multiplex
"Cha-cha-cha-cha-changesssss...." David Bowie (who has plenty of screen credits, in addition to his recording catalogue) perhaps said it best. The indie-film industry continues to behave like the step-child it has been relegated to - precocious, a bit unruly or not quite tidy enough for the grown ups' table, and yet the Big Boy Studios grab every opportunity to snitch from their plates - because they can. The nature of film hasn't changed - it's still a story, film stock (or now, digital) technology and a projector. The distribution, however, has changed radically. Salon's noted film critic Andrew O'Hehir offers his observations with several filmmakers and studio heads that offer their perspectives in this year-end piece, that may be a crystal-ball into the future, a hazardous enterprise at any time, but one which surely will be viewed with keen interest in this multi-billion industry of dreams made large - or, now, rather small on one's Ipod or cell phone. - MS
By Andrew O'Hehir
Dec. 20, 2007 What kind of year was it for independent film? To paraphrase the well-known husband of our prospective first female president, it depends what the meaning of "was" is. And also the meaning of "independent" and "film." New York publicist Jeremy Walker, who helped nurse John Turturro's eccentric musical "Romance & Cigarettes" from the edge of the straight-to-video graveyard and turned it into a modest sleeper hit, approaches the question cagily (as publicists will). "I've been encouraged by the audiences, as distinct from the films," he says, "and the films, as distinct from their delivery systems."
Jonathan Sehring, the indie pioneer who helped launch the Independent Film Channel in 1994 and is now president of IFC Entertainment, says roughly the same thing, in less coded language. "It was not a great year," he tells me. "A lot of it has to do with how fast this industry is changing." In the midst of tremendous confusion over "what's independent and what isn't," he goes on, films not produced or distributed by the major studios' specialty divisions -- meaning Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics and so on -- "are barely getting any distribution at all."
Another veteran of the indie battlefield, producer Christine Vachon, whose recent projects include Todd Haynes' acclaimed Dylanology experiment, "I'm Not There," and Tom Kalin's forthcoming tale of sexual depravity, "Savage Grace," sees a rosier if still complicated picture. "It's been a notoriously intense fall, and there's a lot dividing moviegoers' attention," she says. "But actually, I feel like this has been a pretty impressive year for movies."
Vachon declines to be drawn into the what's-independent-and-what-isn't debate. "It's so hard to quantify exactly, and it feels so reductive," she says. She even rejects the standard industry definition of the term, which means following a film's financing back to its original source. "For me, ultimately you divorce it from the question of financing," she says. "Being independent is about the integrity of the vision. If a movie's great, I don't think it matters whether it was produced by 20th Century Fox or by Fox Searchlight, or was a film-festival acquisition."
Hardly anyone would disagree with that on a philosophical level. But over the three years I've been conducting a year-end survey of the indie biz, one grand theme has emerged. You could almost call it a gigantic free-floating anxiety, rather than a theme: Nobody has a clue how audiences will be watching adventurous, modestly scaled, sub-Hollywood films in five or eight or 12 years, but everybody's pretty sure they won't be watching them the way they are right now.
What Walker calls the "hardtop experience" -- using the ultimate business insider's term for, you know, paying your money and going into a dark room that smells like popcorn to watch images projected on the wall -- is not dead or dying or on life support, or subject to any other medical clichés you can come up with. As Walker says, "The 90-minute to two-hour moving picture still seems to be a standard cultural entity."
Yes, moviegoing is still here and still the centerpiece of the business, although everyone in Indiewood talks about it the way you'd talk about an aging relative who's bound to buy the farm sooner rather than later. Maybe it's not dying, but it's being closely monitored by the doctors for signs of a fast-spreading tumor or a compromised immune system.
There were the customary out-of-nowhere hits in the indie economy this year: Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" is the clear winner of 2007's Napoleon Sunshine award, piling up almost $20 million as a feel-good hit despite the not-so-feel-good fact that its director was unavailable to charm journalists with stories of the little film that could (because she had been murdered in her New York office in November 2006, shortly after "Waitress" was accepted at Sundance). Far more surprisingly, John Carney's winsome Irish musical "Once," another Sundance talking point, made more than $9 million, which comes under the heading of Touched by a Showbiz Angel.
Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie en Rose," with its Oscar-plausible star turn from Marion Cotillard, grossed more than $10 million, an outstanding number for a foreign-language film about a cultural figure with little American profile. Julie Delpy's Woody Allen-esque comedy "2 Days in Paris" made a highly respectable $4.4 million, and another Oscar hopeful, Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," grossed $1.4 million, which is a "Star Wars"-scale number for a serious documentary about recent history in that country that starts with "I" and ends with "q." I'm still startled by the fact that "Into Great Silence," a nearly wordless three-hour documentary shot at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, made $800,000. Monk movies! I'm tellin' you, they're hot, hot, hot! Harvey and Quentin are getting one cranked up right now!
Then there are the kinda-sorta-independent major fall releases that have been carefully nurtured and packaged for the awards season, most of which are doing just fine. On one end of the spectrum you have "No Country for Old Men," clearly an indie by the industry's prevailing definition, but also a massively hyped motion-picture experience cum cultural moment that's bound for Oscar glory and a domestic box office somewhere north of $60 million. (Those are predictions, not facts.) Jason Reitman's pregnant-teen comedy, "Juno," looks like the winter's irrepressible breakout hit; Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" are being caressed along carefully in limited release, en route to multiple Oscar nominations and the ensuing payoff.
That doesn't sound much like a dying business model, does it? Well, no, and also yes. You see, almost all the movies I've just mentioned -- and all of them with actual or likely box-office returns above $5 million -- fall on one side of the great indie-film caste divide mentioned above by Jonathan Sehring. Nobody disputes that the Hollywood studios' boutique wings produce, acquire and distribute lots of worthwhile films, but they're simply not playing in the same stadium as genuine independents like IFC or Magnolia or THINKFilm or Samuel Goldwyn, not to mention the many smaller companies clinging to the fringe of the business. As First Run Features vice president Marc Mauceri told me last year, the mini-majors and their upscale, awards-ready product should be understood as "a side strategy of the Hollywood conglomerates."
Milos Stehlik, director of the Chicago-based video distributor and art-house proprietor Facets Multi-Media (which occasionally dabbles in theatrical distribution as well), has been observing the transformation of the indie-film niche for many years. The studio specialty divisions, he says, "release a lot of good movies, and that's terrific. But they are the big gorillas in this little pond, and the way they can play the economics is very different. If something doesn't work, they can absorb the loss. When something does work, they can maximize it and reap the payoff. Their business model is very different from anything a true independent with meager resources can muster."
So the mini-major studios are implacably shoving the genuine indie distributors out of the marketplace they created; isn't that just capitalism at work? Beyond empathizing with a few people's bruised egos and disordered career paths, why should you care about this? That's an open question, but my own hunch is that, "Into Great Silence" aside, certain kinds of unconventional and demanding films, the ones the specialty divisions don't know how to package and present as spiritually beneficial holiday fare, will get driven even further under the radar than they are already. In my conversation with Stehlik, we began wondering whether filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski (not that they were ever so wildly popular) would even get noticed if they were working today.
"When you see exciting and terrific films that come with all this festival imprimatur, with rave reviews from all the critics, and they become barely a blink on the box-office scene, it's depressing," says Stehlik. "It's probably a harbinger of very bad things to come." (He's specifically talking about "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," one of the best-reviewed films of 2006, which made less than $80,000 in U.S. release.) But Stehlik's answer to Lenin's perennial question for would-be revolutionaries ("What Is to Be Done?") is pretty much the same as everyone else's in the business: Like it or not, sooner or later we've got to leave the damn movie theaters behind.
Facets has moved almost entirely away from theatrical release, and Stehlik notes that the old-school art-film audience has already retreated to their home entertainment systems. "In a very small way, DVD is keeping that art-house scene alive. I almost feel like independent film is going back underground, like it was in the 1950s and '60s. I mean, the cultural landscape is very different, and the technology is very different. I'm not sure the fundamental economics are very different." (His company's all-time best-selling DVD set, for example, is Kieslowski's 10-part series "The Decalogue.")
Sehring's company, IFC, is also gradually decoupling itself from the hazards of theatrical release, but in a different direction. Over the past year or so, IFC has committed to a refined version of the controversial "day-and-date" release strategy, whereby films are released in a handful of theaters and simultaneously become available via video-on-demand (VOD), or pay-per-view, to cable TV customers. This has yet to produce a breakthrough hit, but Sehring says that Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" and Shane Meadows' acclaimed skinhead saga "This Is England" both did about as well on TV as they did in theaters, and that Jeff Garlin's low-key comedy "I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With," while almost unnoticed on the big screen, did "unbelievable business" in VOD.
IFC's new model will get an even more interesting test in 2008, since the company has abruptly become the go-to U.S. distributor for almost every festival-certified art film. Sehring's upcoming slate includes Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon," Catherine Breillat's "The Last Mistress," Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park," Jacques Rivette's "The Duchess of Langeais," Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg" and many more.
"Right now, the VOD platform is the best one out there for this kind of film," Sehring says. "I know I'd much rather watch a movie on my home entertainment system than on a computer screen. I disagree with the common wisdom that the marketplace is overcrowded. I think there are a lot of great movies that have to find their audience, and that audience can be found all over the country. New York and Los Angeles will always be unique as venues for moviegoing, but those are not the only places where film lovers live."
As far as what we'll be doing five years from now, I wish I knew," Sehring continues. "If people are buying brand names, we think the IFC brand is a very strong one for people who want to see good movies. Speaking frankly, I'm not necessarily saying that this model is going to work a year or two from now. But I do know that the traditional model for specialty distribution is broken."
Christine Vachon says she appreciates the necessity of distributing and marketing art-house movies in an entirely new way, but wonders whether IFC's day-and-date releases generate too low a media profile and disappear from public consciousness too rapidly. "I couldn't believe how good 'This Is England' was, from beginning to end," she says, "and it got universally terrific reviews -- and then got completely overlooked at award season."
Still, Vachon adds that her production company, Killer Films, is becoming less focused on making films exclusively for theatrical release. "We're trying to shift with the times," she says. "We had a great experience making 'Mrs. Harris,' which was a movie for HBO. You have to look at how our consumption of media is changing: I watch TV shows on my iPod Nano now, and then there's the YouTube universe and the whole notion of making things for cellphones. It's not up to us to decide what a movie is or how people watch it." For an entire generation of younger viewers, she adds, watching movies on some version of the small screen has long been the primary mode, and going to a movie theater is a rare and special event.
Predicting the end of moviegoing is like predicting the end of the oil business -- people keep doing it, and they keep on being wrong. So I'm not predicting any such thing, and I'm not even saying that strange and adventurous little movies won't keep playing in theaters into the indefinite future. But this time, cinephiles, the writing is on the wall. If 2006 was the year when the indie-film marketplace decisively split into the haves and the have-nots, 2007 looks to me like the year when the artier and more ambitious fringes of that marketplace began to visibly evaporate.
Joel Bachar founded Microcinema International, his small San Francisco distribution company, in the mid-'90s on the premise of screening experimental films, documentaries and cutting-edge animation -- material no mainstream distributor would touch -- for live audiences in nontraditional venues. He still holds those screenings, but says, "We've definitely seen a downturn, both in my film series in San Francisco and all across the country. It's getting harder and harder to convince people to come out."
Microcinema is essentially a home-video distributor now; you might even say Bachar's concept has abandoned the public sphere and moved to the high-end HD monitors in people's living rooms. (One of Microcinema's niches, actually, is ambient video for plasma screens, intended as background visuals or a "video fireplace.") Bachar's next move, he says, will be nailing down a channel for the digital distribution of his videos, perhaps through a social-networking site. "We know we can't stick with DVD distribution forever; the point is to stay open to all possibilities." Whether online distribution actually creates a new audience for challenging material, however, remains anybody's guess.
He concludes: "You know what? The theatrical experience? Usually it's crappy anyway, because people are talking around you and it's uncomfortable or whatever. And I just don't think people care about it anymore. I think we have a new audience and their attention span is different. It might be a cliché, but I really think it's true. There's this social-networking mentality; they're Twittering, they're blogging. There's more commitment to, you know, the experiential moment, and not much commitment to longer moments."
-- By Andrew O'Hehir

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New York Times selects the 100 Notable Books of 2007

The Book Review picks outstanding works from the last year. How many have I read? How many have you read?There is a feast of rich and vital imagination from these writers. I am currently reading The Great Upheaval. -MS

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

American Film Institute picks their top ten films for the year

The American Film Institute is out of the gate with their annual picks of the best films of the year. There are some easy picks, and some surprises, which for the AFI, is not so surprising at all, as they have their own considerations that is sometimes at variance with Hollywood studios and box office concerns. Popular acclaim doesn't always decide, either, which makes their perennial list more diverse.

The AFI Awards are voted on by two 13-member jury panels (one for film, one for TV), mixing scholars, critics and AFI trustees.
The org’s annual luncheon honoring the chosen titles will take place on Jan. 11 at the Four Seasons.
"Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead" Director, Sidney Lumet, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Morisa Tomei, Albert Finney.

Master filmmaker Sidney Lumet directs this absorbing suspense thriller about a family facing the worst enemy of all: itself. Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, an over-extended broker who lures his younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), into a larcenous scheme: the pair will rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store that appears to be the quintessential easy target. The problem is, the store owners are Andy and Hank's actual mom and pop and, when the seemingly perfect crime goes awry, the damage lands right at their doorstep. Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei plays Hoffman's trophy wife, who is having a clandestine affair with Hawke, and the stellar cast also includes Albert Finney as the family patriarch who pursues justice at all costs, completely unaware that the culprits he is hunting are his own two sons. A classy, classic heist-gone-wrong drama in the tradition of The Killing and Lumet's own The Anderson Tapes, the film is smart enough to know that we often have the most to fear from those who are near and dear.
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" - Director, Julian Schnabel. Winner, Best Director, Cannes Film Festival
Story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of French fashion magazine Elle, who, at the age of 43, was disabled by a massive stroke in his brain stem. Despite his disability, Bauby wrote his memoirs by blinking his left eye in an alphabet code.

"Into the Wild" - Director, Sean Penn, stars Emil Hirsch. Based on a true story of one young man's tragic 'return to nature'. After graduating from Emory University in 1992, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life.

"Juno" How is it that there could be TWO top ten films of the year - about unexpected pregnancies - and both comedies? Well, there is, which says something about the state of our expectations, cinemagtically, and even about what is considered humor in the current trouble global conditions. And the pregnant one isn't Jennifer Garner, at least in this pic. The troubled mommy-to-be Juno (Ellen Page) is a Mid-Western highschooler, who decides one day, out of boredom or curiosity, to have sex with her friend Bleeker (Michael Cera), a member of her school's track team. She likes him well enough, but isn't hung up on him. This one time encounter results in Juno's pregnancy. She and her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) decide to take control of the situation by browsing for prospective adoptive parents in the local Pennysaver, and Juno settles on seemingly perfect, affluent couple Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner.)

"Knocked Up" -Director Judd Apatow, stars Katherine Heigl, Seth Rogan. A mismatched couple hooks up for a one-night stand; the subsequent pregnancy, decision by mother to keep child and pledge by father to do what's right set up a very funny look at relationships. Apatow's follow up to "40 Year Old Virgin", with the grammy-winning Heigl (Grey's Anatomy) deliciously cast.

"Michael Clayton" - Director, Tony Gilroy; stars George Clooney, Tilda Swinton.
Michael Clayton (Clooney) is an in-house "fixer" at one of the largest corporate law firms in New York. At the behest of the firm's co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), Clayton, a former prosecutor from a family of cops, takes care of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen's dirtiest work. Clayton cleans up clients' messes, handling anything from hit-and-runs and damaging stories in the press to shoplifting wives and crooked politicians. Though burned out and discontented in his job, Clayton is inextricably tied to the firm.
At the agrochemical company U/North, the career of in-house chief counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) rests on the settlement of the suit that Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is leading to a seemingly successful conclusion. When the firm's top litigator, the brilliant Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has an apparent breakdown and tries to sabotage the entire case, Marty Bach sends Michael Clayton to tackle this unprecedented disaster and, in doing so, Clayton comes face to face with the reality of who he has become.
"No Country for Old Men" Directors, Joel and Ethan Coen; stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin.
From the book by Cormac McCarthy. The thriller begins when Llewelyn Moss finds a pickup truck surrounded by a sentry of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back trunk. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law--namely aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell--can contain. Moss tries to evade his pursuers, in particular a mysterious mastermind who flips coins for human lives, as the crime drama broadens.

"Ratatouille" - Wonderful animated film, and the only picture in history where rats are allowed in the kitchen, but not without a delicious twist. The Rat from Orlando isn't the only lovable rodent in cinema any longer, and the ones in this marvelously sketched story have greater depth and character.
"The Savages"
Director, Tamara Jenkins; stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney.
When an estranged and senile father starts failing, his son and daughter are suddenly burdened with the heavy chore of care-giving for a man who once neglected and abused them. However, in confronting the lingering trauma of their unhappy childhoods, brother and sister form a close new bond. Both leads give outstanding perfs and Hoffman's only competition for awards this season may be himself, in the Sidney Lumet film Before The Devil Knows You're Dead.

"There Will Be Blood" -
Director, Paul Thomas Anderson; stars Daniel-Day Lewis.
Set in the booming West coast oil fields at the turn of the 20th century, a tale that follows the rise of rugged prospector Daniel Plainview who becomes an independent oilman after hitting it rich with the strike of a lifetime. He realizes the American dream, and is destroyed by it. Boldly and magnificently strange, the film marks a significant departure in the work of Anderson. Heretofore fixated on his native Los Angeles and most celebrated for his contempo ensemblers, writer-helmer this time branches out with an intense, increasingly insidious character study of a turn-of-the-century central California oil man. Based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil", it is more concerned with the Day-Lewis character than with the muckraking Sinclair is known for.

The Perfect Storm is Coming for Campaign 2008

Will the presidential election of 2008 mark a turning point in American political history? Will it terminate with extreme prejudice the conservative ascendancy that has dominated the country for the last generation? No matter the haplessness of the Democratic opposition, the answer is yes.
With Richard Nixon's victory in the 1968 presidential election, a new political order first triumphed over New Deal liberalism. It was an historic victory that one-time Republican strategist and now political critic Kevin Phillips memorably anointed the "emerging Republican majority." Now, that Republican "majority" finds itself in a systemic crisis from which there is no escape.
Only at moments of profound shock to the old order of things -- the Great Depression of the 1930s or the coming together of imperial war, racial confrontation, and de-industrialization in the late 1960s and 1970s -- does this kind of upheaval become possible in a political universe renowned for its stability, banality, and extraordinary capacity to duck things that matter. The trauma must be real and it must be perceived by people as traumatic. Both conditions now apply.
War, economic collapse, and the political implosion of the Republican Party will make 2008 a year to remember.
The Politics of Fear in Reverse
Iraq is an albatross that, all by itself, could sink the ship of state. At this point, there's no need to rehearse the polling numbers that register the no-looking-back abandonment of this colossal misadventure by most Americans. No cosmetic fix, like the "surge," can, in the end, make a difference -- because large majorities decided long ago that the invasion was a fiasco, and because the geopolitical and geo-economic objectives of the Bush administration leave no room for a genuine Iraqi nationalism which would be the only way out of this mess.
The fatal impact of the President's adventure in Iraq, however, runs far deeper than that. It has undermined the politics of fear which, above all else, had sustained the Bush administration. According to the latest polls, the Democrats who rate national security a key concern has shrunk to a percentage bordering on the statistically irrelevant. Independents display a similar "been there, done that" attitude. Republicans do express significantly greater levels of alarm, but far lower than a year or two ago.
In fact, the politics of fear may now be operating in reverse. The chronic belligerence of the Bush administration, especially in the last year with respect to Iran, and the cartoonish saber-rattling of Republican presidential candidates (whether genuine or because they believe themselves captives of the Bush legacy) is scary. Its only promise seems to be endless war for purposes few understand or are ready to salute. To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for many people now, the only thing to fear is the politics of fear itself.
And then there is the war on the Constitution. Randolph Bourne, a public intellectual writing around the time of World War I, is remembered today for one trenchant observation: that war is the health of the state. Mobilizing for war invites the cancerous growth of the bureaucratic state apparatus and its power over everyday life. Like some over-ripe fruit this kind of war-borne "healthiness" is today visibly morphing into its opposite -- what we might call the "sickness of the state."
The constitutional transgressions of the executive branch and its abrogation of the powers reserved to the other two branches of government are, by now, reasonably well known. Most of this aggressive over-reaching has been encouraged by the imperial hubris exemplified by the invasion of Iraq. It would be short-sighted to think that this only disturbs the equanimity of a small circle of civil libertarians. There is a long-lived and robust tradition in American political life always resentful of this kind of statism. In part, this helps account for wholesale defections from the Republican Party by those who believe it has been kidnapped by political elites masquerading as down-home, "live free or die" conservatives.
Now, add potential economic collapse to this witches brew. Even the soberest economy watchers, pundits with PhDs -- whose dismal record in predicting anything tempts me not to mention this -- are prophesying dark times ahead. Depression -- or a slump so deep it's not worth quibbling about the difference -- is evidently on the way; indeed is already underway. The economics of militarism have been a mainstay of business stability for more than half century; but now, as in the Vietnam era, deficits incurred to finance invasion only exacerbate a much more embracing dilemma.
Start with the confidence game being run out of Wall Street; after all, the subprime mortgage debacle now occupies newspaper front pages day after outrageous day. Certainly, these tales of greed and financial malfeasance are numbingly familiar. Yet, precisely that sense of déjà vu all over again, of Enron revisited, of an endless cascade of scandalous, irrational behavior affecting the central financial institutions of our world suggests just how dire things have become.
Enronization as Normal Life
Once upon a time, all through the nineteenth century, financial panics -- often precipitating more widespread economic slumps -- were a commonly accepted, if dreaded, part of "normal" economic life. Then the Crash of 1929, followed by the New Deal Keynesian regulatory state called into being to prevent its recurrence, made these cyclical extremes rare.
Beginning with the stock market crash of 1987, however, they have become ever more common again, most notoriously -- until now, that is -- with the implosion of 2000 and the Enronization that followed. Enron seems like only yesterday because, in fact, it was only yesterday, which strongly suggests that the financial sector is now increasingly out of control. At least three factors lurk behind this new reality.
Thanks to the Reagan counterrevolution, there is precious little left of the regulatory state -- and what remains is effectively run by those who most need to be regulated. (Despite bitter complaints in the business community, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, passed after the bubble burst, has proven weak tea indeed when it comes to preventing financial high jinks, as the current financial meltdown indicates.)
More significantly, for at least the last quarter-century, the whole U.S. economic system has lived off the speculations generated by the financial sector -- sometimes given the acronym FIRE for finance, insurance, and real estate). It has grown exponentially while, in the country's industrial heartland in particular, much of the rest of the economy has withered away. FIRE carries enormous weight and the capacity to do great harm. Its growth, moreover, has fed a proliferation of financial activities and assets so complex and arcane that even their designers don't fully understand how they operate.
One might call this the sorcerer's apprentice effect. In such an environment, the likelihood and frequency of financial panics grows, so much so that they become "normal accidents" -- an oxymoron first applied to highly sophisticated technological systems like nuclear power plants by the sociologist Charles Perrow. Such systems are inherently subject to breakdowns for reasons those operating them can't fully anticipate, or correctly respond to, once they're underway. This is so precisely because they never fully understood the labyrinthine intricacies and ramifying effects of the way they worked in the first place.
Likening the current subprime implosion to such a "normal accident" is more than metaphorical. Today's Wall Street fabricators of avant-garde financial instruments are actually called "financial engineers." They got their training in "labs," much like Dr. Frankenstein's, located at Wharton, Princeton, Harvard, and Berkeley. Each time one of their confections goes south, they scratch their heads in bewilderment -- always making sure, of course, that they have financial life-rafts handy, while investors, employees, suppliers, and whole communities go down with the ship.
What makes Wall Street's latest "normal accident" so portentous, however, is the way it is interacting with, and infecting, healthier parts of the economy. When the bubble burst many innocents were hurt, not just denizens of the Street. Still, its impact turned out to be limited. Now, via the subprime mortgage meltdown, Main Street is under the gun.
It is not only a matter of mass foreclosures. It is not merely a question of collapsing home prices. It is not simply the shutting down of large portions of the construction industry (inspiring some of those doom-and-gloom prognostications). It is not just the born-again skittishness of financial institutions which have, all of sudden, gotten religion, rediscovered the word "prudence," and won't lend to anybody. It is all of this, taken together, which points ominously to a general collapse of the credit structure that has shored up consumer capitalism for decades.
Campaigning Through a Perfect Storm of Economic Disaster
The equity built up during the long housing boom has been the main resource for ordinary people financing their big-ticket-item expenses -- from college educations to consumer durables, from trading-up on the housing market to vacationing abroad. Much of that equity, that consumer wherewithal, has suddenly vanished, and more of it soon will. So, too, the life-lines of credit that allow all sorts of small and medium-sized businesses to function and hire people are drying up fast. Whole communities, industries, and regional economies are in jeopardy.
All of that might be considered enough, but there's more. Oil, of course. Here, the connection to Iraq is clear; but, arguably, the wild escalation of petroleum prices might have happened anyway. Certainly, the energy price explosion exacerbates the general economic crisis, in part by raising the costs of production all across the economy, and so abetting the forces of economic contraction. In the same way, each increase in the price of oil further contributes to what most now agree is a nearly insupportable level in the U.S. balance of payments deficit. That, in turn, is contributing to the steady withering away of the value of the dollar, a devaluation which then further ratchets up the price of oil (partially to compensate holders of those petrodollars who find themselves in possession of an increasingly worthless currency). As strategic countries in the Middle East and Asia grow increasingly more comfortable converting their holdings into euros or other more reliable -- which is to say, more profitable -- currencies, a speculative run on the dollar becomes a real, if scary, possibility for everyone.
Finally, it is vital to recall that this tsunami of bad business is about to wash over an already very sick economy. While the old regime, the Reagan-Bush counterrevolution, has lived off the heady vapors of the FIRE sector, it has left in its wake a de-industrialized nation, full of super-exploited immigrants and millions of families whose earnings have suffered steady erosion. Two wage-earners, working longer hours, are now needed to (barely) sustain a standard of living once earned by one. And that doesn't count the melting away of health insurance, pensions, and other forms of protection against the vicissitudes of the free market or natural calamities. This, too, is the enduring hallmark of a political economy about to go belly-up.
This perfect storm will be upon us just as the election season heats up. It will inevitably hasten the already well-advanced implosion of the Republican Party, which is the definitive reason 2008 will indeed qualify as a turning-point election. Reports of defections from the conservative ascendancy have been emerging from all points on the political compass. The Congressional elections of 2006 registered the first seismic shock of this change. Since then, independents and moderate Republicans continue to indicate, in growing numbers in the polls, that they are leaving the Grand Old Party. The Wall Street Journal reports on a growing loss of faith among important circles of business and finance. Hard core religious right-wingers are airing their doubts in public. Libertarians delight in the apostate candidacy of Ron Paul. Conservative populist resentment of immigration runs head on into corporate elite determination to enlarge a sizeable pool of cheap labor, while Hispanics head back to the Democratic Party in droves. Even the Republican Party's own elected officials are engaged in a mass movement to retire.
All signs are ominous. The credibility and legitimacy of the old order operate now at a steep discount. Most telling and fatal perhaps is the paralysis spreading into the inner councils at the top. Faced with dire predicaments both at home and abroad, they essentially do nothing except rattle those sabers, captives of their own now-bankrupt ideology. Anything, many will decide, is better than this.
Or will they? What if the opposition is vacillating, incoherent, and weak-willed -- labels critics have reasonably pinned on the Democrats? Bad as that undoubtedly is, I don't think it will matter, not in the short run at least.
Take the presidential campaign of 1932 as an instructive example. The crisis of the Great Depression was systemic, but the response of the Democratic Party and its candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- though few remember this now -- was hardly daring. In many ways, it was not very different from that of Republican President Herbert Hoover; nor was there a great deal of militant opposition in the streets, not in 1932 anyway, hardly more than the woeful degree of organized mass resistance we see today despite all the Bush administration's provocations.
Yet the New Deal followed. And not only the New Deal, but an era of social protest, including labor, racial, and farmer insurgencies, without which there would have been no New Deal or Great Society. May something analogous happen in the years ahead? No one can know. But a door is about to open

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Year's Top 10 Rights & Liberties Stories

In certain ways, the Rights & Liberties Top 10 list is the most depressing of the year. Nevertheless it demonstrates why consistent and critical media coverage is crucial for beating back the erosion of our basic freedoms. And it should give us hope for the new year, for as many problems the conservative stranglehold has created in our present, we have the power, and the knowledge, to shape the future.
10. Disappeared: Five Years in Guantanamo by Lou Dubose, The Washington Spectator
In 2001, 19-year-old Murat Kurnaz was an innocent man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accused of being a terrorist, he spent five years in Guantanamo before being released -- now he's telling his story.
9. America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters by Chip Ward,
A dirty little secret about America is that public libraries have become de facto daytime shelters for the nation's street people while librarians are increasingly our unofficial social workers for the homeless and mentally disturbed.
8. Life in Solitary Confinement: 12,775 Days Alone by Brooke Shelby Biggs, AlterNet.
Americans shamefully imagine that spending a life sentence in solitary confinement could only happen in faraway countries. But two men in Louisiana's Angola prison know otherwise.
7. The War on Drugs Is Really a War on Minorities by Arianna Huffington, Los Angeles Times. Democratic presidential candidates crave the Latino and black vote, but ignore the Drug War's unfair toll on people of color.
6. In Violation of Federal Law, Ohio's 2004 Presidential Election Records Are Destroyed or Missing by Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet.
In 56 of Ohio's 88 counties, ballots and election records from 2004 have been "accidentally" destroyed, despite a federal order to preserve them -- it was crucial evidence which would have revealed whether the election was stolen.
5. The 'Silent' Ninth Amendment Gives Americans Rights They Don't Know They Have by Daniel A. Farber, Basic Books.
The First Amendment right of free speech and the Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination are well-known, but the Ninth Amendment is ignored. Pity, because it bears directly on abortion, the right to die and gay rights.
4. Is a Presidential Coup Under Way? by Jim Hightower, Hightower Lowdown.
The Constitution is being trampled and nothing less than American democracy itself is endangered -- a presidential coup is taking place. Where is Congress?
3. Don't We Have a Constitution, Not a King? by Marjorie Cohn, AlterNet.
Bush has issued a directive that would place all governmental powers in his hands in the case of a catastrophic emergency. If a terrorist attack happens before the 2008 election, could Bush and Cheney use this to avoid relinquishing power to a successor administration?
2. The End of America? Naomi Wolf Thinks It Could Happen by Don Hazen, AlterNet. An interview with author Naomi Wolf, whose new book, "The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot," may confirm your worries about democracy in America.
1. The Rise of Christian Fascism and Its Threat to American Democracy by Chris Hedges, Truthdig.
We must attend to growing social and economic inequities in order to stop the most dangerous mass movement in American history -- or face a future of fascism under the guise of Christian values.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Golden Globes Nominations announced

'Atonement' leads the pack
"Tis the season" is a familiar refrain, and not only applies to the consumerist shopping frenzy known collectively as the "Holidays", but also the industry-led frenzy of the Awards Season. The on-going writers' strike may impact the frivolity as well as the delivery of the giddy Golden Globes, but announced today are the Film and Television nominations. Below are the cinema noms, with "Atonement" leading the list. What are YOUR early picks for best film/director/actor/actress/screenplay? I will put up a survey and the winning picks will receive a special prize from the Java Studios...stay tuned....and, the Oscar noms will be announced in a few weeks, too! - MS

With seven nominations, "Atonement" leads an overflowing field of drama contenders in Golden Globe bids announced Thursday."American Gangster," "Eastern Promises," "The Great Debaters," "Michael Clayton," "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" fill out the drama field.
Three musicals -- "Across the Universe," "Hairspray" and "Sweeney Todd" -- join "Charlie Wilson's War" (the recipient of five noms) and "Juno" in the comedy-musical category."No Country," "Clayton" and "Sweeney" garnered four apiece.
Three hits will compete for best animated movie: "Bee Movie," "The Simpsons Movie" and "Ratatouille."Clint Eastwood also turned up in a new milieu, with best score and song noms for "Grace is Gone."In TV, British projects made an unusually strong showing, including three made-for-TV movie or miniseries nominees: HBO's "Five Days" and "Longford" and BBC America's "The State Within."
Presented by the 80-some-odd members of the Hollywood Foreign Press. Assn., the Globes’ significance has stemmed in part from its perceived reliability as a predictor for the Academy Awards, with the eventual best picture winner having also been feted at the Globes all but once from 1993 to 2004.That correlation, however, hasn’t held up as well over the last three years -- including 2007, when "The Departed" won the Oscar, after "Babel" and "Dreamgirls" (which failed even to secure a best-picture nomination) were honored in the drama and musical-comedy categories, respectively.
Even so, with various critics groups spreading their top kudos among a number of films and the sense that several Oscar slots are up for grabs, the Globes will doubtless be viewed as a bellwether that could help thin a crowded field of potential contenders.The 65th annual awards will be presented Jan. 13 and again televised on NBC. A potential complication to the telecast is the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild, which could not only impact the production itself but also dampen the tone of the traditionally celebratory awards season.Steven Spielberg has been chosen to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

"American Gangster" - Imagine Entertainment/Scott Free Productions; Universal Pictures
"Atonement" - Working Title Productions; Focus Features
"Eastern Promises" - Kudos Pictures - Uk Serendipity Point Films - Canada A Uk/Canada Co-Production; Focus Features
"The Great Debaters" - Harpo Films; The Weinstein Company/MGM
"Michael Clayton" - Clayton Productions Llc; Warner Bros. Pictures
"No Country For Old Men" - A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production; Miramax/Paramount Vantage
"There Will Be Blood" - A Joanne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production; Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films
Cate Blanchett - "Elizabeth: The Golden Age
"Julie Christie - "Away From Her"
Jodie Foster - "The Brave One"
Angelina Jolie - "A Mighty Heart"
Keira Knightley - "Atonement"

George Clooney - "Michael Clayton"
Daniel DayLewis "There Will Be Blood"
James Mcavoy - "Atonement"

Viggo Mortensen - "Eastern Promises"
Denzel Washington - "American Gangster"

"Across The Universe" - Revolution Studios International; Sony Pictures Releasing
"Charlie Wilson’s War" - Universal Pictures/Relativity Media/Participant Productions/Playtone; Universal Pictures
"Hairspray" - New Line Cinema in association with Ingenious Film Partners; New Line Cinema
"Juno" - Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production; Fox Searchlight Pictures
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" - Parkes/Mac Donald and Zanuck Company; Warner Bros. Pictures

Amy Adams - "Enchanted"
Nikki Blonsky - "Hairspray"
Helena Bonham Carter - "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Marion Cotillard - "La Vie en rose"
Ellen Page - "Juno"

Johnny Depp - "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Ryan Gosling - "Lars And The Real Girl"
Tom Hanks - "Charlie Wilson’s War"
Philip Seymour Hoffman - "The Savages"
John C. Reilly - Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

"Bee Movie" - DreamWorks Animation; DreamWorks Animation
"Ratatouille" - Pixar; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Distribution
"The Simpsons Movie" - Gracie Films; Twentieth Century Fox

"4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days" (Romania) - Mobra Films; Ifc First Take
"The Diving Bell And The Butterfly" (France And Usa) - A Kennedy/Marshall Company And Jon Kilik Production; Miramax/Paramount Vantage
"The Kite Runner" (Usa) - Dreamworks Pictures Sidney Kimmel Entertainment And Paramount Classics Participant Productions Present A Sidney Kimmel Entertainment And Parkes/Macdonald Production Distributed By Paramount Classics
"Lust, Caution" (Taiwan) - Haishang Films; Focus Features "Persepolis" (France) - 247 Films; Sony Pictures Classics

Cate Blanchett - "I’m Not There"
Julia Roberts - "Charlie Wilson’S War"
Saoirse Ronan - "Atonement"
Amy Ryan - "Gone Baby Gone"
Tilda Swinton - "Michael Clayton"

Casey Affleck - "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford"
Javier Bardem - "No Country For Old Men"
Philip Seymour Hoffman - "Charlie Wilson’s War"
John Travolta - "Hairspray"
Tom Wilkinson - "Michael Clayton"

Tim Burton - "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen - "No Country For Old Men"
Julian Schnabel - "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly"
Ridley Scott - "American Gangster"
Joe Wright - "Atonement"

Diablo Cody - "Juno"
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen - "No Country For Old Men"
Christopher Hampton - "Atonement"
Ronald Harwood - "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly"
Aaron Sorkin - "Charlie Wilson’s War"

Michael Brook, Kaki King, Eddie Vedder - "Into The Wild"
Clint Eastwood - "Grace Is Gone"
Alberto Iglesias - "The Kite Runner"
Dario Marianelli - "Atonement"
Howard Shore - "Eastern Promises"

"Despedida" from "Love In The Time Of Cholera" - Music By: Shakira, Antonio Pinto, Lyrics By: Shakira
"Grace Is Gone" from "Grace Is Gone" - Music By: Clint Eastwood, Lyrics By: Carole Bayer Sager
"Guaranteed" from "Into The Wild" - Music & Lyrics By: Eddie Vedder
"That’s How You Know" from "Enchanted"- Music & Lyrics By: Alan Menken
"Walk Hard" from "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" - Music & Lyrics by: Marshall Crenshaw, John C. Reilly, Judd Apatow, Kasdan Sexy Money"

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Very Green philosophy of Dennis Kucinich

The Democratic candidate calls for a new energy paradigm. But are Americans ready to be "in harmony with nature"?

Dennis Kucinich, the little guy in the Democratic pack of presidential candidates, stands tallest and strongest with Green issues. It's not just a convenient stance or opinion of his, either. He really has the most progressive in-depth analysis and policy positions of any of the candidates. He is fearless on his advocacy of not just green issues, either, as he has also submitted legislation for the impeachment of Vice-Prez Dick Cheney. I met him at the Florida Democratic Convention in 2003, spoke with him for about a half-hour at a caucus gathering and was struck at how self-effacing he was as he presented himself and his ideas. A dark-horse candidate, to be sure, but a very bright - and deep green - candidate. His election will indeed change the very face and future of this nation, and even the world, possibly to the extent FDR had done n 1932, seventy five years ago. Are the conditions ripe for his serious consideration by the primary states? Current street wisdom says no, yet he may well be a futurist and only later recognized as the prophet, before his time. - Here's an interview that reveals where he stands and what he plans to do as a Green President. - MS
By Amanda Griscom Little

Dec. 11, 2007 He may be eating the front-runners' dust in the polls, but among deep green voters, Dennis Kucinich is considered a trailblazer. A Democratic U.S. representative from Cleveland, Kucinich is calling for a radical overhaul of the U.S. government and economy -- one that would infuse every agency in the executive branch with a sustainability agenda, phase out coal and nuclear power entirely, and call on every American to ratchet down their resource consumption and participate in a national conservation program.
A vegan who counts Ralph Nader among his heroes, Kucinich doesn't exactly embody the sensibility of the average American. He says his commitment to sustainability "extends to everything I am and do" -- from the food he eats and clothes he wears to the policies he espouses. It's the same progressive platform that made him a darling of the far left when he ran for president in 2004. Will it take him any farther this time around?
I reached Kucinich by phone at his home in Ohio.
For more information on his platform and record, check out Grist's Kucinich fact sheet.

Why should voters consider you the strongest green candidate?
Because mostly our candidates aren't going to be able to do anything about the underlying issues that threaten our environment. Many of the candidates -- [John] Edwards, [Barack] Obama and [Hillary] Clinton -- are heavily funded by hedge funds on Wall Street, which are driven by a psychology of short-term profits and investments. And with candidates taking that kind of money from those interests, it defies belief that they're going to be in a position to take this country in the direction it needs to be taken.
What sets your green platform apart from the rest?
As president of the United States, I'm going to shift the entire direction of America. We need to see the connection between global warring and global warming, and it's oil. Sustainability is the path to peace. And I'm the only true peace candidate in this election. So peace means being in harmony with nature. If you're in harmony with nature, you don't exploit nature. You don't ruin the land, you don't extract the oil, you don't take the coal out of the earth.
My underlying philosophy is a green philosophy. It means that I'm looking at a total reorganization of the federal government to create a cooperative and synergistic relationship between all departments and administrations for the purpose of greening America.
You propose, for instance, the Works Green Administration.
The Works Green Administration harks back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration, where he put millions of people back to work rebuilding America's infrastructure. I too have an infrastructure-rebuilding program which will put millions of people back to work. Picture this: You take every area of involvement in the federal government -- whether it's the Small Business Administration, or the Housing and Urban Development Department, or the Department of Agriculture, or the Department of Labor. Each would incorporate green goals. We'd have billions of dollars loaned to the states at zero interest for green development programs; we'd have programs furthering green housing; agricultural policies would relate to green.
Do you think Americans are ready to answer the call to conserve?
Of course they are. They're just waiting for leadership, and it has to come from somebody who's not tied to any of these interest groups, or is worried about whether he's going to offend a contributor. And so, yes, I think people know that their future's at stake.
What I intend to do as president is to call forth that instinct which is within every person for not just survival but to be able to thrive. We need to make the connection between prosperity and sustainability. It also means we have to turn toward peace, we have to stop warring, because war is ecocide, war destroys the environment. And so I'm going to call forth the people of this country for a whole new direction. I think America's not just ready for it, it's overdue and people know that.
I will also ask the American people to participate in a grand and great conservation effort. Imagine if tens of millions of homes suddenly had an awareness that when you don't need the electricity, don't flip the switch. That you use only the water that you need and you don't use any more -- you don't let the faucet run.
Do you believe that we need a carbon tax in addition to a cap-and-trade program, or neither, or both?
We need to do whatever we can do to create disincentives for the use of carbon-based energy. But that's not enough. Carbon-based taxes alone won't cut it because some people may be willing to pay an extra tax to use something that's bad for the environment. Inevitably we need a requirement to move away from all carbon-based technologies and to fund fully all alternative-energy research that is in harmony with the environment.
So you would propose a strict cap on carbon emissions, a carbon tax and a massive government-supported plan to promote renewable technologies?
Yes, but I'd want to put the emphasis first on the government supporting renewable technologies. A tax could reflect the full cost to society of certain types of energy. But the answer is not simply punishing those people who are using carbons. You have to do everything you can to move people toward renewable energy.
You've been calling for years for a renewable portfolio standard that would have the U.S. get 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2010. Now that 2010 is around the corner, what sort of RPS plan would you implement as president?
Well, obviously we've lost the advantage of that particular time frame. For the next time frame, I think we could set something by 2020 and look to 30 or 40 percent. But that means we're talking about a very sharp turnaround here.
How would you shift the utility industry toward renewables, toward this whole new paradigm?
One of my proposals is to have millions of homes with wind and solar technologies, and people can sell energy back to the grid. The role of utilities will change dramatically because it's not going to be a centralized approach toward energy production. They'll have to figure out different ways that they might be able to provide support for green alternatives. I want to see, eventually, all the homes in this country have the option of that technology. In turn, you can create millions of jobs building alternative technologies.
Would nuclear power play any role in your energy policy as president?
Nuclear has to be phased out. The hidden costs of nuclear are enormous -- of building these plants and storing the waste forever. It's not financially or environmentally sustainable.
Nuclear makes up 20 percent of America's electricity supply. What would you replace this with? You don't want to leave a gap in our energy needs, but at the same time, with a program of conservation and movement toward alternative energy, we can begin phasing out nuclear.

What about coal, the source of more than half of our electricity supply? Would you phase that out, or do you believe in the promise of advanced coal technologies?
No, coal has to be phased out. In the same way that the Department of Agriculture for years was paying some farmers not to grow, I think we can get to the point of paying coal miners not to mine. Why should the miners have to suffer from the lack of foresight of our energy policies? That's something that I intend to address in my Works Green Administration.
The electric utility industry would argue that such a massive shift would pass along huge rate hikes to consumers. How would you protect Americans from these expenses?
We do not need to be held hostage by the utility industry. I'm not someone who's going to roll over when these utility industries issue their threats. We're going to break up the monopolies in utilities; that's No. 1. No. 2, these utilities are going to be closely regulated for their activities. No. 3, they're going to be required to go green as license conditions. No. 4, they're going to be closely monitored and shut down if they violate the Clean Air Act. We're going to have a very aggressive Environmental Protection Agency, and utilities are not going to be dictating energy costs. I don't mind working with them, I don't mind moving toward areas where they can be cooperative in protecting the environment, but they're not going to run energy policy.

But such a transition would create huge costs. How would you pay for them?
It pays for itself. See, the whole idea about sustainability is that you conserve, you save and then you use the savings for other things. However, where we need financial incentives, this is where the government can play a major role in putting money into circulation for the production of these [green] products, and in putting people to work. Roosevelt understood in the '30s that there were things he had to do to move the economy. And I understand what we need to do to move the economy in a green direction.
Do you support subsidies for ethanol or other gasoline alternatives, like biodiesel?
I don't know about subsidies. I think those technologies are transitional to fuel-cell technology. I wouldn't want to create incentives to lock us into usages that are not where we ultimately want to go. And there is a serious issue with ethanol and its impact on food supplies.

Many argue that the U.S. shouldn't commit to a global greenhouse-gas reduction target that doesn't involve China and India. Do you agree, and how would you bring them to the table?
First of all, as president, I'm going to let the rest of the world know that the days of America trying to be a nation above nations is over. We have to quit trying to dominate other countries, and we have to step out of our isolation and into the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. I think the world is ready for an American president who puts the sword down, so that nations won't have to spend a tremendous amount of their resources trying to prepare for war.
We have to be ready to take the lead, but we need to have harmony with other nations. As president, I intend to work with the leaders of China and India and other nations to promote an environmental consciousness and sustainable economies. I will use trade as a vehicle to try to raise the level of living for all people, and environmental sustainability must be the watchword. All of our trade agreements must have within them requirements for protecting the air and the water and the land of all the countries we do business with.

After climate and energy, what do you think is the most important environmental issue facing the nation?
Agriculture -- the way we grow our food -- and we really need to make sure that we protect our water supply. These issues are closely tied to each other.

Who is your environmental hero?
Oh, I have many. Thomas Berry, whose book "The Great Work" talked about how our great work in life is to achieve a real harmony with the environment. I think Lester Brown has done some incredible work on raising the consciousness of people. Amory Lovins has done some excellent work, and I think Ralph Nader has pointed to a lot of the environmental implications of corporate conduct and trade laws. And John Robbins has been so incredible in his awareness of the impact of the food we eat on our environment.

What was your most memorable wilderness or outdoor adventure?
As a child, we lived in the city, we moved around a lot. But there was one place we lived, above railroad tracks, and on the other side of the tracks was this vast acreage called "the gulley" that was created with the blasting of the railroad. It had these huge rock piles and vegetation everywhere and it almost looked prehistoric. It was a place that I would go to often and find solitude and be able to just think. So much of my own life has been connected with a desire to be close to nature, to be close to the water, to be close to green.

If you could spend a week in one natural area of the U.S., where would it be?
I would say somewhere in northern Maine. The whole state is beautiful, but northern Maine is just extraordinary, and I've seen all 50 states. I also love Maui.

What do you do to lighten your environmental footprint?
My philosophy of life extends to everything I am and do. If I say I'm for peace, I'm for peace in the kind of products that I use, in the kind of shoes that I wear, and in terms of the clothes that I wear, in terms of my eating habits. I'm always thinking in terms of sustainability. That's the way I live. I live in a small house and we're very conscious of our energy usage. I drive an American car, a Ford Focus, but it's one of the highest fuel-economy cars.
I've been living an essentially vegan lifestyle since 1995, and that has led me to a condition of extraordinary health and clarity. Now, I'm not, as president, going to tell everyone what they have to eat, but I will share my own story about how the choices that I've made have meant, for myself, a better life, and a happier life. I'm 60 years old, but I'll bet that I'm in better physical shape than a lot of people a lot younger.

If George Bush were a plant or an animal, what kind of plant or an animal would he be?
I don't want to go there.

Fair enough. Would you spin it around on yourself? If you were a plant or animal, what kind would you be?
An eagle.
How so? Truly American?
No. Keenness of vision.