Thursday, November 27, 2008
A tale of two movies
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, 1992 to be exact. Gus Van Sant, the filmmaker who had just thrilled the world with his young-hustlers-in-love classic My Own Private Idaho, was picked to direct The Mayor of Castro Street. Already six years in development, this proposed adaptation of Randy Shilts' biography of Harvey Milk — the openly gay San Francisco supervisor whose 1978 assassination remains a tragic watershed — was shaping up to be Hollywood's First Big Gay Movie. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron had initially brought powerhouse writer-director Oliver Stone onboard, but after criticism leveled (by this writer) at Stone's gays-conspired-to-kill-Kennedy epic, JFK, he decided to step down as the project's director (while staying attached as a co-producer), allowing Van Sant to step in.
But as all too frequently happens in Hollywood, "creative differences" arose. Van Sant left the project to make an extremely commercial name for himself with Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film that made Matt Damon and Ben Affleck household names and won co-star Robin Williams a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Ironically, it was Williams who was supposed to play Harvey Milk when Van Sant had been attached to Castro Street.
The project then drifted along in "development hell" for many years afterward — years in which Van Sant went from a successful run at commercial filmmaking (climaxing in the Sean Connery vehicle Finding Forrester) all the way to the furthest fringes of the avant-garde (with his shot-by-shot color remake of Psycho; Elephant, his nonstar rendering of the Columbine massacre as a kind of conceptual art piece; and his skateboarder epic, Paranoid Park). Now, Van Sant comes full circle with Milk, a straightforward neo–Sidney Lumet docudrama, based on a script by 29-year-old screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, conceived independently of the now-dormant Castro Street project. As someone who has spent the better part of his life involved in gay activism, to say that I found Milk moving is an understatement. Genuinely political Hollywood films are rare; gay-activist Hollywood films are nonexistent. Milk is both. It's also a film whose emotions and ideas speak directly to every audience, regardless of political commitment or sexual orientation.
L.A. WEEKLY: It looks like, after all these years, you've finally made the film you've always wanted to make about Harvey Milk.
GUS VAN SANT:Well, The Mayor of Castro Street wouldn't have been like this. If I'd gotten its screenplay the way I'd have liked back then, it really wouldn't have resembled Lance's much at all.
At the time, you said the thing that most interested you about the story was the idea of this guy who had a camera shop in the Castro and all these friends, and became involved in politics. It was also about the birth of the Castro as a gay mecca. You said you'd remembered when the Castro went from hippie to gay overnight.
Did you ever read any of those other scripts?
There were a ton of them. They always included the Castro, but to varying degrees. Becky Johnston wrote mine initially. I wrote a really wacky one later on that resembled a Charlie Kaufman movie.
Was that the one I heard about, with the giant Twinkie walking down the street?
Yes, that was it. It was all about the "junk food" that the defense claimed drove Dan White to kill. When he committed the murders, we had him go into this hallucination-possessed-blackout mode. He was dressed as the Twinkie Sheriff; he shot [George] Moscone, who was Mayor McCheese, and Harvey was Ronald McDonald.
WASHINGTON — Since the U.S. economy went into freefall in September, the federal government has announced hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and economic stimulus packages in attempts to shore up banks and reignite the economy.
The latest astronomical figure is an $800 billion package announced Tuesday by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. Many are wondering, however, how long this spending can go on. Here are a few answers:
Q: First of all, where does the money come from?
A: The bulk of the cash has been put up by lenders buying U.S. Treasury Department securities such as bonds, notes and short-term bills. Economists estimate that international investors have purchased as much as three-fourths of such securities, with many of them flocking to relatively safe U.S. investments amid global uncertainty.
Some of the spending also has been financed by securities issued by agencies such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.
Q: How much money has the U.S. government spent or loaned out since September?
A: Congress passed in early October a $700 billion bailout plan that gave the Treasury Department sweeping powers to buy distressed assets and keep banks afloat. About half of that money already has been loaned out.
The federal government theoretically will be repaid what it's loaned except for $100 billion in losses incurred from buying some assets above market value.
The government also has injected $45 billion into a large bank, Citigroup, and $150 billion into a large insurer, American International Group.
On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department announced the latest round of spending, to the tune of $800 billion. One program would lend some $200 billion to holders of securities backed by consumer loans such as credit card loans and auto and student loans. The other program would spend up to $600 billion buying mortgage-backed assets from government-sponsored lenders such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
President-elect Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress also have promised passing a major stimulus plan that could cost $300 billion or more.
The turn to online research is narrowing the range of modern scholarship, a new study suggests
A recent study, however, suggests that despite this cornucopia, the boom in online research may actually have a "narrowing" effect on scholarship. James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, analyzed a database of 34 million articles in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and determined that as more journal issues came online, new papers referenced a relatively smaller pool of articles, which tended to be more recent, at the expense of older and more obscure work. Overall, Evans says, published research has expanded, due to a proliferation of journals, authors, and conferences. But the paper, which appeared in July in the journal Science, concludes that the Internet's influence is to tighten consensus, posing the risk that good ideas may be ignored and lost - the opposite of the Internet's promise.
"Winners are inadvertently picked," says Evans. "It drives out diversity."
This study adds weight to concerns, shared by other Internet analysts, that the rise of online research has costs as well as benefits. Internet search tools are not neutral: they tend to privilege the new and the popular. And for all the frustrations of older research methods, their very inefficiency may have yielded rewards. Leafing through print journals or browsing the stacks can expose researchers to a context that is missing in the highly targeted searches of PubMed or PsychInfo. The old-fashioned style of browsing, some say, can provide academics with more background knowledge, and lead to serendipitous insights when they stumble upon articles or books they weren't necessarily looking for.
Yet there is vigorous debate over the Internet's effects, and the Evans research has proved controversial.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov called his book about his childhood years, and in this incantatory title we can hear our human dread of forgetting. "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness," reads the book's first sentence. The crack of light may be described as memory itself -- that fickle and unreplicable network of experience and associations from which we construct who we are, who others are, and what we may expect from them and from ourselves.
In the broadest sense, memory is consciousness, because what the brain is doing at all times and in all of its operations is remembering. More often than not, it is a matter of practical cognition: knowing where we left the keys, and then, once we have located them, what the keys are for. But within such memories are vestiges of our emotional and sensorial lives, an intimate network of recollections, unique to each of us, that keys conjure. The neurosystem in which this cascade of memory occurs, with its branches and transmitters and ingeniously spanned gaps, has an improvised quality that seems to mirror the unpredictability of thought itself. It is an ephemeral place that changes as our experience changes, to the point where we are incapable of remembering the same event in exactly the same way twice.
In her fascinating book about memory loss and the efforts of scientists to understand it, Sue Halpern reports an experiment in which members of the Cambridge Psychological Society were asked to reconstruct a meeting of the society that had taken place two weeks before. The average person was barely able to recall 8 percent of what had happened, and almost half of this was incorrect, peppered with the recollection of events that had never occurred or that had occurred elsewhere.
Such paltry power of retrieval in an educated, and supposedly attentive, group is not surprising. Memory, Halpern reminds us, "is not an archive," nor does it record in real time. It lives in the brain "in chemical traces. The traces can fade...and they can be augmented," depending on one's experience and observation.
Why buy or build a house when you could simply grow your own? That is precisely the concept behind the Fab Tree Hab - architecture that grows over time. Heavy trees are slowly woven together as they develop to form the essential structure while lighter materials like vines are used to create more detailed connections and canopies. The result? A mixture of predictable and unpredictable, organic and constructed and certainly the end product is bound to be slightly different with each iteration. (Source)
"AND RIGHT AFTER THAT, I'M GOIN' AFTER BULLWINKLE THE MOOSE."
Frank Furedi on the assumptions, agendas and distinctly iffy data behind those ubiquitous words, 'research shows'
As someone devoted to academic research, I feel increasingly embarrassed when I encounter the words "research shows" in a newspaper article. The status of research is not only exploited to prove the obvious, but also to validate the researcher's political beliefs, lifestyle and prejudice.
So last month a study by John Alford of Rice University proved that right-wing Americans are likely to be far more nervous than left-wing counterparts. Liberal readers will be delighted to learn that they are typically relaxed.
We know this is cutting-edge research because he interviewed as many as 46 people. There was also good news last month for people of faith. University of Oxford researchers have discovered that belief in God works as a wonderful form of pain relief. After testing 12 Roman Catholics and 12 atheists, they concluded that believers can draw on reservoirs of spirituality to endure suffering with greater fortitude than unbelievers.
This was not news to the Anglican Bishop of Durham, who observed that the "practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are". It also turns people into honest, generous, trusting citizens, according to a study published in Science in October.
If you are offended that your lifestyle and belief have not been validated by gold-standard research, you will be delighted to know that there must be a study out there that proves your moral worth. Liberals may be more chilled out, but right-wing folk are nicer. There is now an important corpus of research that demonstrates that a right-wing outlook disposes people to be happy and to act philanthropically.
By Scott McCabe
In March, Felipe Sixto resigned from his position as special assistant to the president on intergovernmental affairs as the Justice Department began to investigate allegations that he misused federal grant money intended for his former employer, the Center for a Free Cuba.
Also in March, the U.S. Agency for International Development officials reportedly suspended a $2.3 million grant to the Center for a Free Cuba after the group disclosed that Sixto allegedly had used more than $500,000 in grants for illegitimate purposes.
Maybe Ralph Nader was right in predicting that the same Wall Street hustlers would have a lock on our government no matter which major party won the election. I hate to admit it, since it wasn't that long ago that I heatedly challenged Nader in a debate on this very point.
But how else is one to respond to Barack Obama's picking the very folks who helped get us into this financial mess to now lead us out of it? Watching the president-elect's Monday introduction of his economic team, my brother-in-law Pete said, "You can see the feathers coming out of their mouths" as the foxes were once again put in charge of the henhouse. He didn't have time to expound on his point, having to get ready to go sort mail in his job at the post office, but he showed me a statement from Citigroup showing that the interest rate on Pete the Postal Worker's credit card was 28.9 percent, an amount that all major religions would justly condemn as usurious.
Moments earlier, Obama had put his seal of approval on the Citigroup bailout, which his new economic team, led by protégés of Citigroup Executive Committee Chairman Robert Rubin, enthusiastically endorsed. A bailout that brings to $45 billion the taxpayer money thrown at Citigroup and the guarantee of $306 billion for the bank's "toxic securities" that would have been illegal if not for changes in the law that Citigroup secured with the decisive help of Rubin and Lawrence Summers, the man who replaced him as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration.
As Summers stayed on to ensure passage of deregulatory laws that enabled enormous banking greed, Rubin was rewarded with a $15 million-a-year executive position at Citigroup, a job that only got more lucrative as the bank went from one disaster, beginning with its involvement with Enron in which Rubin played an active role, to its huge role in the mortgage debacle. It is widely acknowledged that Citigroup fell victim to a merger mania, which Rubin and Summers made legal during their tenure at Treasury.
Yet despite that dismal record of dismantling sound regulation, Summers has been picked by Obama to be the top White House economic adviser and another Rubin disciple, Timothy Geithner, is the new Treasury secretary.
Oh, Lordy. It is that time again. Thursday is Thanksgiving— the official kickoff event of the 2008 holiday season. For a lot of progressives, these festivities also mean that we're about to spend more quality time with our conservative relatives over the next six weeks than is strictly good for our blood pressure, stress levels, or continued sanity.
Personally, I'm not a wholehearted fan of turkey—probably because the mere smell of it instantly slams me back into memories of several decades of Thanksgiving dinner arguments with conservative kin that took a turn for the ugly. We all know we're supposed to stick to "safe" topics like the kids, college football, and the weather; and avoid controversial issues like religion, politics and whether oysters belong in a proper bird stuffing. But the afternoon is long, and after the approved topics have been exhausted and that third bottle of Cabernet vanishes and the tryptophan torpor hits, decorum and discipline are at high risk of going all to hell. After that, things can and do get contentious, usually in ways that make everyone wish we could all just go back to fighting over oysters in the stuffing.
These family gatherings were hard enough to stomach through the appalling years of the Bush Adoration—but this year, it's likely to be even worse. Our beloved family wingnuts were insufferable, in a grotesque Mayberry-on-acid surreal kind of way, while crowing into their succotash about the manly Godliness (or was it Godly manliness?) of Our Divinely Ordained Commander-in-Chief. But this year's different. This year, they're on the way out of power—and they're scared witless about it. Which means big steaming heapin' helpings of liberal-bashing are likely to be featured prominently on the menu next to the mashed potatoes, as they put fresh vigor into every paranoid anti-liberal fantasy ever spouted by Rush, Reverend Pat, or their new darling, Sarah Palin.
The black guy won. Armageddon—or, at the very least, socialism, atheism, gun control, and a national epidemic of erectile dysfunction—must certainly be at hand.
As you prepare to head once again into the family fray, it might be useful to note that most of the right wing's favorite anti-liberal slanders are rooted in some deeply-held—and deeply wrong—assumptions about who liberals are, and what we believe. If your relatives, God bless 'em all, insist on going down that road, your best defense this year might be to listen closely for these underlying myths and fables at work—and be prepared to challenge them head-on when they surface in the discussion.
Here's a basic set to get you started. Tuck it away in your bag with your Xanax and Maalox, and apply (liberally, of course) as needed.
1. Liberals hate America.
For the record: Liberals love America. In fact, what makes us liberals is that we actually read and believed all those pretty words in the Declaration of Independence about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and in the Bill of Rights about freedom of speech, religion, assembly, privacy, and all the rest of it.
We're idealists that way. We want to live in the country the Founders described. We believe that the nation's founding documents expressed a uniquely powerful moral contract between the people and their government, and an audaciously positive vision of people's ability and competence to shape their own future. When we get annoying and whiny, it's usually because we believe so much in America's astonishing promise—and our own responsibility for realizing it—that we're sorely disappointed when the country falls short of that standard. We really want to believe we can do better.
Conservatism, by contrast, tends to take a dim view of human nature, prefers hierarchy to liberty, and isn't completely convinced people can or should be trying to contravene the will of God or their betters by trying to arrange their own futures. This tends to lead to a selective reading of the Constitution (as well as the Bible), and—as we've seen in the Bush years—a far more flexible attitude toward its interpretation.
The proof, however, is in the history—and it's pretty irrefutable. America's greatest moments of progress, generosity, and moral strength occurred when the country stuck most closely to its progressive ideals. We loved America so much that we freed the slaves, passed child labor laws, built schools and colleges, gave the vote to women, enacted civil rights laws, rebuilt Europe after a war we helped win, and put a man on the moon. All of these were progressive projects—and all were fought tooth and nail by conservatives in their time, simply because they feared change and saw power as a zero-sum game. Yeah, we sometimes overshoot and miss—but you can't argue with the daring scope of our dreams.
Conversely, most of our worst moments—the Native American genocide, the continued justification of slavery and Jim Crow, the Japanese internment, Abu Ghraib —were conservative projects that were driven by narrow-minded xenophobia and short-term greed, and are regretted by everyone (including most conservatives) when we look back now.
Rick Perlstein has called this out as a predictable pattern: conservatives will loudly obstruct social progress for decades before finally accepting it—and then, they'll insist they were 100 percent for it all along.
Love us or hate us; but we're every bit as American as our conservative friends and relatives, and have been since the day the Declaration was written (by a liberal, in fact).
2. Liberals want to leave us defenseless in the face of evildoers around the world.
The big disconnect on security issues begins with the fact that we have a far more expansive definition of "security" than conservatives do. And, perhaps, a broader sense of what the actual threats are, and what can be done about them.
When conservatives discuss "security," they're usually thinking in terms of solving all our problems by sending in more guys and gals with guns. The flip side of this that they tend not to give much credence to real threats that can't be fixed by guys and gals with guns.
But as progressives, we know that the country's financial crisis is a security issue. And in a world of superbugs and epidemics, universal health care is a security issue. And global warming is, plain as day, a looming security issue (and the Pentagon agrees). We also know that sending in the Marines, hiring more cops, and taking off our shoes at the airport won't begin to address some of our most terrifying problems. Real-world security is far more complex, and requires a much wider range of solutions, than most conservatives are willing to consider.