Friday, December 31, 2010

Opening for an Essay I Decided It Would Be Too Depressing to Write

My last five significant jobs (including the current one), along with quite a few earlier jobs, have been thoroughly unpleasant experiences, which either means that I am exceptionally unlucky, or, more likely, that I am not cut out for the working world; since I think many jobs are like that, or would be for me.  [Really, you can imagine the rest!]

Decline in Living Standards

Not that this is a surprise, but the New York Times reports that even those who have found work after a period of unemployment aren't feeling so cheery. 70% of those who switched fields took pay cuts; even 45% of those who stayed in the same field took cuts. And of course, they can all easily get laid off from their new jobs and face yet another search.

One worker reports, "I’d love to go back to what I was doing...But when I talk with the unemployment office here in Michigan, they tell me the chances of going back and using the same skill set I had before are pretty farfetched." Well, of course. A career with a forward path would allow this man some stability, and as Jacob Hacker describes in his book The Great Risk Shift, stability is precisely what the forces in power are intent on denying him. There is something almost vindictive in the way this is playing out, as if the plutocrats were punishing the rest of us for not being plutocrats ourselves. "Take that, loser!"

I am reminded of a quotation from Edith Wharton's great novel The House of Mirth: "If she slipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she was aware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level." I feel that way often myself.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Overlooked Movies

Scott Mendelson posted an interesting list of overlooked 2010 movies at his blog. Mendelson is a capable, opinionated writer that I have mixed feelings about, because, like many of the other capable movie writers out there, from Manohla Dargis to Mike D'Angelo, from Glenn Kenny to Jeffrey Wells, he seems to lack any frame of reference whatsoever outside film and pop culture. But this is still a pretty good piece.

Follow-up point: In my observation, not that this is surprising, book bloggers are a much more intellectually engaging lot than movie bloggers. The good book bloggers tend to be aware and informed about movies, all kinds of music, the visual arts, history, philosophy. It bothers me that movie writers are more closed-off. It could be that, for book bloggers, books function as a window onto the world; while for many movie writers, movies function as a mirror, reflecting their pre-existent enthusiasms back at them. This is not the fault of the movies themselves, of course, but it is an unfortunate tendency in discourse about the movies.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Is America a plutocracy?"

Well, my answer would be, It certainly seems to have become one (and not for the first time, either). Historian and political economist Francis Fukuyama gives the question full consideration in this exceptionally interesting article. 

His conclusions are a bit softer and more tentative than mine would be, especially when it comes to this bit:

At some level, corrupt developing-country elites know they are getting away with murder (sometimes for real); they rarely try to justify their self-enrichment to themselves in moral terms. American elites, however, tend to believe they are helping society as a whole even as they help themselves. Thus the centrality of the efficient market hypothesis: Financiers proudly see themselves as “value creators”, not as highbrow pickpockets of widows and orphans.

I suspect that many of this type do privately see themselves as....well, maybe "highbrow pickpockets" is not the term they would use, but perhaps "clever self-enrichers"? They are true globalists in this sense: The welfare of the United States and its citizens means not a whit to them, except insofar as America is usefully the land where "a sucker is born every minute." They have offshored not only the jobs at their companies but also, to the extent they can, their own money, and their own responsibilities under American laws. In short, I think that they are generally far more cynical than Fukuyama lets on, and that they do not care much about "value creation" except as it applies to their own bank accounts. Of course, promoting concepts such as "value creation," "trickle down, " and Schumpeter's "creative destruction" is helpful to the elite class rhetorically, but we should not be misled by that.

Nonetheless, Fukuyama's essay is an important contribution, and I recommend it strongly.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Single Man (2009)

I finally saw A Single Man, after urgings from friends -- I snapped it up at my local Korean bookstore the minute I saw the DVD on sale. Interestingly, although Koreans ostensibly disavow homosexuality as a Western import, they do seem to have a particular fascination with it, which made me less than surprised to see this DVD on offer. The second-highest grossing Korean film of all time, The King and the Clown, is a gay historical romance, as is another popular movie here, A Frozen Flower. In one of my classes on national cultures just last week, a female student demonstrated extensive familiarity with Tchaikovsky's love life....

But I digress. I liked A Single Man, especially for Colin Firth's wonderful lead performance. but I did not love it and would not rank it very high as a piece of cinema. For me, a gay romantic construct gets no special points just because it is gay. More to the point, is it true? The problem I have with A Single Man (which may go back to the Christopher Isherwood novel, but I'd have to check) is that the dead lover is improbably perfect -- a pure fantasy figure (especially for the era). As incarnated by the incredibly handsome Matthew Goode, he is heart-stoppingly attractive, funny, sensitive, intelligent, hot, dog-loving, comfortably way ahead of his time -- I mean, it's just too much. I can enjoy this as a Boy's Own Romance number -- the flashback depicting the lovers' first meeting is particularly delightful ("I think I'm taken") -- but as a director and co-scenarist, Tom Ford does nothing to complicate the romantic template even a little bit. A truly complex gay film such as the late Bill Sherwood's 1986 Parting Glances -- which features very handsome men, too, but puts them to much more interesting use -- is far ahead of A Single Man even though it came out 23 years before. A Single Man is pleasurable but ultimately rather regressive, I think.

As an instance of that regression, the "looks fascism" of the fashion industry where Ford resides is very much in evidence throughout the film. There is no one on significant display who is less than sexy and stunning (except for the maid, and who cares what the help look like, right?). Tom Ford's vision will not admit that anyone could be short or overweight or average-looking. The film would have been so much truer if the student-in-pursuit had been ordinary and unremarkable instead of a young male model type. Why should the professor kill himself, when he has two knockout sexual opportunities in one day (the other being the hustler), the likes of which most of us wouldn't encounter in ten years? Come on.