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Monthly Archives: March 2009

Mending Wall

SOMETHING there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Robert Frost

Foreclosure sale, NYC

Profiting from another’s misery is, of course, an old story.  Read the spam you get sent.   In the news of late have been some interesting stories on how America ” works.”  One of them is about Penny Mac, a new company which has arisen out of the ashes of an older one, Countrywide.   The latter did mortgages, and was one of the instigators of the present housing bubble crash.  Executives from it have managed to borrow a mess of money and are now buying up defaults cheap, refinancing, and, well, making more money based on the mess they produced and from which they profited earlier, though leaving others to hold the empty bag.  Now that is capitalism!!

“In an insane world, the person who is rational has the problem. Money is as addictive as cocaine.” — Andrew Lo, a professor of financial engineering.

For some decades now, in the economics departments across the academic landscape, it has been the “Chicago School,” (Milton Friedman, most famously) which has ridden high in the saddle, espousing the kind of economics that has landed us in this mess.  These are those of “the short sharp shock” of  Thatcherism.  Leave it to Ivory Tower “thinkers” to get very detached from reality and in due time have their theories, brought into practice in the big real world, bring ruin to all.   Back in the 60′s it was the Best and Brightest (aka Robert McNamara et al) who ushered in the Viet Nam war, sure they knew better than everyone how to manage with up to date methods the nasty matter of war.  More recently Mr. “Stuff Happens” Rumsfeld followed precisely in the same footprints.  So now, as the unfolding economic debacle reveals the hollowness of theory, and these economists (Greenspan, Paulson, etc.) scamper to lay blame anywhere but at their own feet, doubtless we will be treated to arcane new theories and numbers which won’t, of course, do a damn thing for those recently booted from their houses thanks to the glories of plain old fashioned socially and politically encouraged greed in the form of con-men high and low issuing sucker loans and mortgages, and credit card issuers jacking up their %, all to a deliberately dumbed-down and now numbed-out unterclass, which bought into the slick promotions that promised everything for nothing down and a little tiny print about something later.

Economists seem in general not to be into morals.  And their practitioners – businessmen – seem not to be into ethics.  Every man for himself.  Darwinian blah blah.   He who dies with the most toys wins, says the bumper sticker.

Calvin Coolidge

“The business of America is business.”

And you can trust assured that for Republicans, this statement is the god-almighty truth, and they make sure they practice it as a religion.  In fact, as many recent mega-church pastors have said, sort of following in the statement of a recent Chinese communist premier (Deng Xiaoping) who said “To get rich is glorious,”  being filthy rich is a sign that God loves you and you are doing right.  Indeed.

Robert Schuyler’s Crystal Cathedral, Orange County Ca.

Meantime back in the numbers racket, this:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Freddie Mac, one of the two main U.S. mortgage companies that the U.S. government is depending on to help stabilize the housing market, said on Wednesday it needs $30.8 billion from the Treasury to survive after a massive fourth-quarter loss.

Interestingly, in the NYT article saying this they fail to actually mention how much money old Freddie Mac has already gobbled up in US taxpayer largesse:  $284 billion to 150 billion, split between Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (don’t you love these folksy names) – I can’t find an actual figure for Freddie in a quick Google search.  So Joe Public coughs up another 30.8 billion or Freddie goes under.  Where, to whom, why, how all this money goes remains a matter of opaqueness, along with the other estimated 3-9 trillion bucks being used to prop up our glorious system, pride of the nation, or at least of the 1% of the filthy rich part.   The rest are being played, as usual, for suckers.

Ah, but Mr. Schuyler will be happy to pray for you up there on his television monitor while you sit in the sun-splashed SoCal pews, and, deep in Orange County, surely vote Republican.

The national news meme for our two permitted slightly different political parties is that Republicans, The Grand Old Party, are the guardian of thrift, of small government, of national security, etc.  Re the matter of national security – on just whose watch, and given ample forewarning of imminent threat, did the 9/11 attack occur?  And of the former items, see the below.

natl_debt_chart_2004Thanx to Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

For more on this, see cinemaelectronica.

Camp Bucca, Iraq

“We need to take our hands off the handlebars, or the training wheels, at some point,” Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, the chief American military spokesman, said Monday.


George Bellows

American naive, at National Galleryevans_graveWalker Evansgary-winogrand-foto-1962-nyGary Winograndguston4Philip GustonheademartinjohnsonsunlightandshadowMartin Headebasquiat-xJ-M Basquiatsternfeld-pumpkin-fireJoel SternfeldFrank Gehry does blast walls

Alexis de Tocqueville:

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

“In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.”

“In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”

In the past brief month and a half there was a US Presidential inauguration, a handful of skittering little political scandals, a wave of panic over the collapsing global economy, and a constant drumbeat of negative fiscal news.  Some million plus Americans lost their jobs in those 6 weeks; surely millions of others gave up hopes of finding work.   The official unemployment stands around 7%, though most officials understand these figures are unreal, the method of measurement having been jiggled way back in Jimmy Carter’s day, in order to help mask the unhappier truth.   Real unemployment is something closer to 15%, and in places like California edging on 20%.   To say, we’re in a most predictable pickle, though our experts, as usual, missed this one by a mile.  Of course, those experts – like Paulson and current Treasury Secretary Geithner had certain self-interests helping them miss the signs of trouble coming up the track – they were making tens of millions with the system gamed as it was.

But, of course, behind every darkening cloud, there’s a silver lining for someone.

Suddenly it seems as if everyone is going to the movies, with ticket sales this year up 17.5 percent, to $1.7 billion, according to Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking company.

And it is not just because ticket prices are higher. Attendance has also jumped, by nearly 16 percent. If that pace continues through the year, it would amount to the biggest box-office surge in at least two decades.

Americans, for the moment, just want to hide in a very dark place, said Martin Kaplan, the director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society at the University of Southern California.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.”

Of course the films of choice do not wrestle with the real problems these audiences are trying to escape; quite the opposite.  Slumdog Millionaire (which I have not seen), contrives to paint a rosy scenario out of the depths of Mumbai poverty.  [My friend Dennis Grunes reports that to add insult to injury, the film's co-director, Loveleen Tandon, an Indian woman who clearly had a major hand in directing the Indian children, showing a touch ever lacking in Mr Boyle's work, was totally excluded from the Oscar recognition, showing perhaps the impacted colonialist mentality that still quivers in the English (Scots in this case) heart.]  It’s been suggested that this film became a hit owing to its unintended timely resonance with today’s financial realities.  Which is to say that while Americans supposedly voted for “change you can believe in” when confronted with the reality of the cumulative effects of their own behavior – running up credit card, student loan, mortgage debts so high they’ll never pay them off, while accepting the quantum leap equivalent in the stock market (don’t wanna look too hard at how those gazillions are being made…) – they show that deep down inside they really want to keep things like their imagined normal:  get lucky at Vegas or on American Idol and for minimum input come out a billionaire with no effort.   So Hollywood profits by merely sucking up the psychological consequences of its own socially derelict product, the dream factory rolls on cranking out more delusions, more future troubles, playing out its role as a metaphor for everything wrong about American culture.  Of course it is one of the country’s most lucrative exports, along with arms and corporately farmed food stuffs.

By coincidence the other night, around 4 am, Marcella jabbed a deep-in-sleep me in the ribs, exclaiming, “look at this!”   She was watching a film on her notebook, Penn’s Into the Wild.   The occasion for pulling me out of my slumbers was to point at the name Alenka Pavlin floating by in the tail credits.  Alenka and I lived together way back in 1985-7.  She moved down to LA from San Francisco long ago, following her interests in sound recording.  She was boom operator for Penn on this one, getting travels all over for 6 months.  Lucky her.

Of course, like more or less all those who trundled stylishly dressed to the dais to receive their golden dildo, as well as those who sat splendorously to watch them, they all land somewhere on the upper levels of the income charts of the US, if not among the exclusive club of mostly financial-corporate CEO souls whose wealth is measured in mere billions.   Hollywood stars are amply rewarded though, enough to push them to the top percentile or so in earnings.  Meanwhile Joe Blow has seen this:

Thanx to Len Hart, the Existentialist Cowboy

Or, as the recent unemployment figures underline, they are dropping precipitously far lower than this graph suggests.  Of course this graph lies, like graphs often do, by failing to tell just what this ascending Gross Domestic Product was composed of – what was America busy making?  As mentioned, we were cranking out food, and movies, and weapons, though not as this graph would suggest in such accelerating amounts.  Nope.  What we were busy manufacturing during these years, under the philosophical guidance of the Bush administration in which regulation, oversight, or just following-the-laws, were brushed aside in the interests of globalization and “the Free Market” and other such shibboleths, so that we could make “financial instruments” like derivatives and bundled debts and the entire Wall Street lexicon of fiscal mumbo-jumbo which has all proved to spell something like P-O-N-Z-I.   Though on a scale which makes that name origin look like chump change.   So in fact our “product” actually reflected not the top line on the above graph, but the bottom one: we were just chuggin’ along at make-do level.  With one major problem – most were doing it just like the guys on the top were doing it, on imaginary money, running up credit card debt of one kind or another, charging it to their expanding home “value,”  and other such bookkeeping sleights-of-hand.  But now the piper is calling and everyone is showing empty pockets.  And, as we are seeing, the Reaganite trickle-down is coming as an apocalyptic deluge, but in negatives:  the Wall Street hot shots cut back on the $5 latte and there goes the local barrista to the unemployment line, along with the aspiring actor cum waiter, and the myriad other members of our supposedly new “service industry” economy.   The fabulously wealthy scamsters of the corporate world are suddenly bust, and along with them goes all the “servicing,”  classy call-girl blow-jobs and all.   The spiral down is now an avalanche, as in the fabled (and false) explanation of how the World Trade Center fell – one floor pancaking to the next in a vertical domino effect, but here it’s fiscal entities heading at gravitational speed to terra firma.

For the record, again, I feel certain that 9/11 is so full of fishy aspects that it must have been some kind of inside job.  The image of Mr Bush reading My Pet Goat (upsidedown – what an example to the kids…) smacks of a rich kid who just did something real nasty and just found out about it:

Mr Bush, who has seemingly vanished from the world, was quoted before he departed as pondering, in a kind of poor-little-me manner, “why did it (the economic melt-down) have to happen on my watch?”   Indeed.  It must not have had anything to do with his policies, enforcement of existing law, example of brazen law-breaking himself, or the rampant corruption at all levels which characterized his administration.  Just a coincidence, of course.

So while the nation and the world took a deep breath of hopeful release as Obama took up the keys to the national vehicle, the clatter of ever-worse news has muffled the sighs of content.   Certainly it appears that he’s a can-do kind of guy, and has surrounded himself with like-minded help, but one senses it all may be – despite the astounding numbers tossed about  (700 billion here, 1.3 trillion there, 7 trillion cumulatively over there ….  our eyes glaze over in incomprehension at these can’t-imagine digits)  too little way too late.   Nor can we, or those bandying them about, really gauge just what they might do aside from burning up the Treasury printing presses.   As they themselves seem to say, they’re doing it because they have to, “to save the system.”

And indeed that seems to be the fundamental problem – an incapacity to let go of what is transparently a rotten system, in which these crises are cyclical and predictable, having to do with some of the basic rules of that system.  Like its arch-rival, “communism” (whichever label one puts on it, in America anything that hints of some gentle mode of “socialism” is deemed irredeemable on utterance), capitalism comes out of the womb with a built in sure-fire Achille’s Heel.  With communism the problem is actually the same as with capitalism, with just the shifting of a few words which have proven to be interchangeable.  Capitalism posits that “the economic market” will sort out all values, deliver the most efficient delivery of things to ever happier souls, and make for a little paradise here on earth.  It does this by economic competition, in which the strong/better etc. survive and are well-rewarded for their services to humanity.  That this system seems to repeatedly result in skewed income charts, booms and busts, not to mention a broader rampage of damage on the environment, social relations, and the human psyche is thought to be irrelevant to those fundamentalists of the Market.  As Mr Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush are inclined to respond to those who point out these problems – “So what?”   Indeed.    Communism makes similar promises, if only for a temporary time we place dictatorial power in well-intentioned hands for a short term in order to build a workers’ paradise on earth.   We’ve seen what happened with that one in China, the old USSR, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and elsewhere.  Somehow the honey of this power attracts a certain kind of personality, and the shift to an anarchic non-government of happy collectives is ever delayed, while Mao orchestrates his Great Leaps and plays with his concubines, or Pol Pot plows his killing fields.

In both ideologies something is fundamentally amiss, something so obvious and self-evident that it is hard to think that grown-ups actually believe them.  Especially since for the most part myths and fables and the collective wisdom of the ages all say pretty much the same thing and we’ve attempted (always failing) to build social restraints to minimize these things.  Left to their own devices, humans are pretty selfish and greedy; surrounded with a system, like a capitalist one which celebrates wealth, and hence greed, a lot of people will not hesitate to trample over the next person to get whatever there is to be gotten first.   Along the way they and their cohorts will of course construct a social and psychological framework to support this and all its consequent results.   They will be celebrated, churches will bless them, and so on.   Communism does the same thing, except shifts “power” into play instead of “wealth” (though in practice those in power in communist cultures were always the wealthiest as well, duh…).   Boiled down to essences there are probably certain percentages of any populace of people who are either genetically and/or socially predisposed to seek and have power – for the psychological pleasure of it.   In either capitalist or communist systems these people are funneled to their appropriate place on top of the heap, and they then indulge their inner selves to their needs.  Hello Mr Stalin, Lenin, Mao, or though carrying a differing banner but espousing essentially the same things, hello Mr Schicklegruber, a.k.a. Hitler.  And there are people who like to follow authoritarian leaders, so a perfect mix.

One would think with the plethora of example before us, we’d figure it out and see that the basic flaw in these “systems” is staring us in the mirror.  All that capitalism and communism do, precisely because they are systems, is to amplify this human constant of greed and power-hunger.

So as this crisis hits the US, as well as the rest of the world, rather than, as Mr Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggests one should do and turn a crisis into a moment of opportunity, we find all the powers that be directed toward “saving the system.”   They’ll modify this and that, make it environmentally a bit more sane, try to ameliorate the vast income disparities, trim back the military a touch, and basically do a lot of cosmetics aimed to resuscitate a failed system.   We hear Obama assert in his Inaugural Address that “we will not apologize for our way of life” – without noting that “our way of life”  is that 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of its energy; that a tiny fraction of that 5% owns some obscene chunk of the world’s wealth, and so on.  We don’t hear that were the entire globe to live in the manner Americans live (even those gliding along on that bottom line on the chart), we could kiss our asses communally good-bye in short order.

What we need to do, for ourselves, and for this little hospitable site we live on, is to question the entire system, question our entire set of values and priorities, and commence with some profound changes in how we all live.  But it is a characteristic of systems like “capitalism” or “communism” that they cannot do such things as question themselves in such a manner.  Just like religious fundamentalists cannot do so.  Instead it seems, despite ample historical examples to give us cautionary lessons, we must drive ourselves over a cliff, into a real hard inescapable catastrophe before we are willing to adjust our behavior in any significant manner.   At the moment we’re in the prelude, likely with a major depression building around us, with all its attendant probable social-political ramifications (wars, famines, the usual company of such tragedies), and rather than confront this impending matter, we prefer to make some minor adjustments hoping it will all just go away and allow us to resume a few years hence in a manner something just like we were doing.

In which case it is somewhat more likely we’ll be looking like the pair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I recently finally finished reading.  For the most part a compelling book though I felt it was a bit redundant (hard not to be when the world has been stripped down to almost nothing), and that the ending was a tad too upbeat.  I’ll be curious to see how the film copes with it – almost guaranteed to be a big box office loser, especially in these depression bound times when most would prefer a frothy musical to lose a few hours in.

the-road-cormac

For me it’s back to classes this coming week.  Two a week, one being the Visual Directing kind of foundation here’s-what-DV-can-be course, and the other this time around being make-a-feature-with-Jon.  Meaning we have to crank out a new feature in the coming 4 months, using students as help, actors, sources for places, settings, ideas.  I have not given it a thought, wanting to have it be generated from whatever we can piece together in the first few weeks.  I’m completely open.

Meantime on our trip to Singapore-Malacca-Kuala Lumpur (see cinemaelectronica) some possible future options seem to open up – a perhaps teaching job in S’pore and maybe later on setting up a kind of school in Malaysia.  We should know more of these soon.   While on journey we got an urgent email from Yonsei, urging me to sign contract for the coming year.  This was a bit uncharacteristic as last year they’d waited late in the game to indicate they’d be wanting me back.  Word must have drifted.

tigers-malacca

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